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Time for Class: HHMI Puts Top Scientists in the Classroom

Summary

Up to 15 new HHMI professors will receive $1 million over five years to create activities that integrate their research with student learning to enhance undergraduates' understanding of science.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute is searching for up to 15 leading scientist-educators with great ideas for transforming science education. As new HHMI professors, each of the scientists will receive $1 million over five years to create activities that integrate their research with student learning in ways that enhance undergraduate students’ understanding of science.

HHMI professors are accomplished research scientists who are deeply committed to making science more engaging for undergraduates. By providing them with the funds and support to implement their ideas, HHMI hopes to empower these individuals to create new models for teaching science at research universities.

“We are looking for scientists who have already thought about how to integrate their research with their student activities and who are motivated to pursue tough questions, but who may not have had the time or resources to implement their ideas,” says David Asai, HHMI’s director for precollege and undergraduate science education. “We hope that these awards will really allow them to do things they haven’t done before.”

Students benefit most when scientists draw on their own interests and expertise in their educational activities.

David Asai

Each professor will receive a five-year grant from HHMI, and will become a permanent member of the community of current and former HHMI professors known as the Society of HHMI Professors, a community of scholars who share ideas and collaborate to improve science education. Like all HHMI scientists, the HHMI professors will have the freedom and support to follow their best ideas.

The 40 scientists who have been named HHMI professors since the program began in 2002 have introduced innovative approaches for teaching science in the classroom, expanded and enhanced student research opportunities, developed new educational resources, and implemented novel mentoring programs for student support. In the current competition, which opens today, HHMI is seeking scientists who are thinking broadly and creatively about important challenges in science education. Natural science professors at the approximately 100 research universities classified by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching as having “very high research activity” are invited to apply.

“From our first two groups of HHMI professors we already have a really spectacular set of examples of what committed scientists can do with these resources. These individuals continue to be held up as models in the science education community,” Asai says.

For example, at the University of California, Los Angeles, students in HHMI professor Utpal Banerjee’s functional genomics course have conducted original research on genes and development of the fruit fly, leading to publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals with more than 250 student authors. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, HHMI investigator and professor Cathy Drennan has developed a boot camp curriculum that teaches graduate student teaching assistants in the biology and chemistry departments how to build inclusive learning environments for students. Students who participate in HHMI professor Isiah Warner’s mentoring program at Louisiana State University show higher average GPAs and graduation rates than other LSU students majoring in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields—despite underperforming during their first-year science coursework. And the rapid-cycling, self-compatibleBrassica plants developed by HHMI professor Richard Amasino at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, are being used by high school students for genetic experiments that reveal how traits that affect plant development are inherited.

“What we’ve learned in the last decade is that when you provide accomplished scientists significant funding to apply to science education efforts, they pursue really interesting ideas,” says Cynthia Bauerle, HHMI’s assistant director for precollege and undergraduate science education. HHMI’s professors take a scientific approach to their educational activities, experimenting and collaborating to find ways to engage students and enhance their learning. Further, she says, past awardees have demonstrated that a commitment to science education does not have to take time or focus away from research. “Scientists who are on the ground at academic institutions are always balancing their identities as scientists and educators,” she says. “We’re looking for individuals with creative ideas about how to do that.”

For leading scientists at research universities, educational and research activities are not distinct, Asai says. Instead, they overlap and frequently inform and enhance one another. “Students benefit most when scientists draw on their own interests and expertise in their educational activities. And many of our past and current professors have told us that their research programs have benefited from their educational efforts.” To support that synergy, the new professors will be able to apply up to 25 percent of their HHMI funding to support research activities in the context of student learning.

The professor grants, which complement HHMI’s science education grants to colleges and universities, leverage the high value that the research university culture places on the accomplishments of individual scientists, adds Asai. Awardees are expected to be established, well respected scientists who are in a position to impact their colleagues and academic departments. “If that impact can spill over beyond the university to the larger community of scientists, all the better,” he says.

Applicants can apply online at www.hhmi.org/competitions. Prospective applicants must establish their eligibility by June 4, 2013, and applications must be completed by July 16, 2013. A panel of distinguished scientists and educators will review the proposals, and finalists will be invited to present their proposed activities at a symposium in May 2014. HHMI will announce the awardees in summer 2014.

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The Howard Hughes Medical Institute plays a powerful role in advancing scientific research and education in the United States. Its scientists, located across the country and around the world, have made important discoveries that advance both human health and our fundamental understanding of biology. The Institute also aims to transform science education into a creative, interdisciplinary endeavor that reflects the excitement of real research. For more information, visit www.hhmi.org.

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Robert Gutnikoff
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