Howard Hughes Medical Institute 2010 Annual Report

HHMI-supported initiatives in science education teach students to be comfortable with experimentation and uncertainty.

HHMI-supported initiatives in science education teach students to be comfortable with experimentation and uncertainty.

New Perspectives in Science Education

There is no substitute for first-hand discovery. That philosophy is behind two HHMI programs that take different, but complementary, approaches to advancing science education in the United States. Taken together, they create opportunities for testing creative ways to engage students in biological sciences on a massive scale.

Zoom in and see Massachusetts Institute of Technology biochemist Catherine Drennan engaged in a lively roundtable conversation with her graduate students, devising new ways of teaching introductory chemistry to support students of diverse backgrounds. See a dozen undergraduates tromping through a South American rain forest with Yale University biochemist Scott Strobel in search of medically useful compounds.

Drennan and Strobel are among 13 HHMI professors who together received a total of $9 million in new support from the Institute in 2010. The HHMI Professors Program recognizes leading research scientists who share a commitment to science education.

Zoom out for the wide-angle view, and see hundreds of experiments designed to test—on a broad scale, in a variety of settings—ways to strengthen science education at all levels through the Precollege and Undergraduate Science Education Program.

With grants to 50 research universities around the country in 2010, HHMI committed to a $70 million investment in undergraduate and precollege science education to complement 48 grants awarded to liberal arts colleges in 2008. Some of the initiatives create research experiences for undergraduates; others create new courses that integrate more math or computer science into biology. Many of them aim to encourage students of diverse backgrounds to pursue science.

“We made a conscious decision in this country, more than 50 years ago, to couple academic research and science education. I think it’s the best system in the whole world,” says David Asai, director of HHMI’s precollege and undergraduate programs. “The job of these programs, whether they’re institutional or individual grants, is to make it better.”

Thirteen Professors

The HHMI professors will focus on solving important problems facing science education, such as how best to bring research into the classroom, teach large introductory science courses, and encourage students from diverse backgrounds to become scientists.

Launched in 2002, the HHMI Professors Program reflects the Institute’s commitment to giving exceptional individuals the freedom to set their own agendas. The 2002 competition and another in 2006 awarded grants to a total of 40 HHMI professors. That group was invited to apply for four years of additional funding in 2009, and 13 were selected.

They will be working on a wide variety of projects. Some, like Strobel, have used elements of their own research interests to create meaningful educational experiences. “The old way is that you just memorize facts,” says Asai. “And really what science is, is not knowing. We support programs that show how to be comfortable with not knowing, and to be comfortable with making mistakes.”

Others, including Isiah Warner at Louisiana State University, will focus on retaining students in the sciences—especially those from groups that are traditionally underrepresented. Warner has developed a “mentoring ladder” to support minority students as they enter different stages of their scientific careers.

Drennan is among those who are developing programs to improve teaching of undergraduates, especially in large introductory classes. So is Diane O’Dowd at the University of California, Irvine, who has created “garage demos” that can bring life to biology lessons.

The value of their efforts won’t be limited to their own classrooms and labs; the professors will use part of their new funding to disseminate what they’ve learned to the wider science community. “They have all done remarkable things that are worth sharing—not just the 13, but the 40 who have come along,” says Asai.

Fifty Universities

The Precollege and Undergraduate Science Education Program grants to research universities, which range from $800,000 to $2 million over four years, have a different advantage: scale. In many cases, they support initiatives that reach hundreds or even thousands of students. These initiatives aim to introduce research-based courses and curricula, give more students vital experience working in the lab, and improve science teaching from elementary school through college.

“Each institution is different because of its environment, the kind of students it has, and the size,” says Asai. “So, we expect each grant to really be quite local. It’s important to have enough of these institutional grants across the country so that what we learn isn’t just applicable to three or four locales. Fifty is a better number.”

Encouraging local approaches has allowed the institutions to take advantage of their existing strengths. At the University of Missouri, for example, one initiative pairs students from the school’s renowned journalism program with science students to enrich all of the students’ perspectives and skills.

Of the newly selected universities, five received an award for the first time: Florida International University, Northwestern University, the University of North Texas, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and Western Michigan University.

The universities are tackling a range of problems facing science students and educators on their campuses and in their communities. Some are revamping dated curricula or trying out innovative approaches that could change how undergraduates view science. Others are starting or continuing programs for science teachers and students in cash-strapped local school districts. What they share—with each other and with the work of the HHMI professors—is a fundamental belief that the best way to learn is through experimentation.

“What we know works is inquiry-based, problem-based learning,” says Asai. “You learn better by doing it than by not doing it, whether you are female or male, whether you are old or young, whether you are majority or minority, rural or urban.”

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Graham Hatful