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Science Education Outreach Goes Viral

Massachusetts Institute of Technology


MIT will use part of its $1.8 million HHMI grant to share its online science educational tools with a larger worldwide audience through its OpenCourseWare (OCW) program. 

For the past 20 years, HHMI funding has helped strengthen education outreach and the undergraduate biology curriculum at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

When it comes to education outreach, MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW) program is the school’s killer app. Simply put, OCW makes lecture notes, exams, and videos from MIT faculty freely available over the internet. When first unveiled in 2002, OCW offered 32 courses. It has since grown to more than 1,900 courses, featuring materials from more than 75 percent of MIT's faculty. More than 50 million unique visitors have already discovered the OCW website, which currently features more than 70 biology courses.

MIT will use part of its $1.8 million HHMI grant to share its online science educational tools with a larger worldwide audience through OCW. Graham Walker, an HHMI professor and biologist at MIT, and his colleagues have made two popular educational tools from his group’s STARBiology software suite available as part of this effort. STAR is an acronym that stands for software tools for academics and researchers.

One component of the StarBiology suite, StarBiochem, is a protein viewer that helps students see how proteins are folded and how they work inside cells. Walker developed StarBiochem in 2006 to improve the teaching of large introductory biology lectures. At the time he was building the application, most protein-viewer programs were considered too sophisticated for beginners. But Walker felt that “playing with a protein” was exactly what new students needed to grasp how molecular biology works. StarBiochem has been used by more than 3,000 undergraduates and high school students and has been accessed online more than 15,000 times by students and teachers from 71 countries.

StarBiochem’s success stimulated the development of StarGenetics, an educational software tool that allows students to perform virtual genetic experiments. Students can use the program to simulate mating experiments between organisms that are genetically different across a range of traits to analyze the nature of those traits. Both software programs are available through MIT’s STAR website, the biology department’s educational resources site, and HHMI’s Cool Science for Educators. “Both programs are being widely used nationally and internationally, and we hope that usage will continue to increase,” said Walker.

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