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Colleges receive funds to incubate new science education courses and programs.
Colleges receive funds to incubate new science education courses and programs.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) announced today that it has selected 47 small colleges and universities in the United States as the recipients of grants totaling over $50 million that will enable the schools to work together to create more engaging science classes, bring real-world research experiences to students, and increase the diversity of students who study science.

“Collaboration is a vital activity that drives science forward,” said HHMI President Robert Tjian. “We believe that collaboration among institutions can have a similar catalytic effect on science education, and we look forward to seeing these schools work together to develop new science and teaching programs that inspire their students.”

Each four-year grant is in the range of $800,000 to $1.5 million—an amount that can have a big impact at these schools, which are collectively described as “primarily undergraduate institutions,” or PUIs. The small size of most of these schools can make them more nimble than larger research universities and better able to quickly develop and test new ideas.

“What happens during the undergraduate years is vital to the development of the student, whether she will be a scientist, a science educator, or a member of society who is scientifically curious and literate. HHMI is investing in these schools because they have shown they are superb incubators of new ideas and models that might be replicated by other institutions to improve how science is taught in college,” said Sean B. Carroll, vice president of science education at HHMI. “We know that these schools have engaged faculty. They care deeply about teaching and how effectively their students are learning about science.”

Importantly, this initiative is designed to encourage long-term collaboration among the schools. As the schools carry out their programs, they will have the opportunity to discuss strategies regularly with other schools working on a similar problem. The principal activities of the programs are grouped into six strategic themes:

  • Preparing undergraduates to become K-12 teachers who understand inquiry-based learning

  • Creating curricula that emphasize learning competencies instead of simply checklists of courses

  • Defining and assessing what it means for a student to be scientifically literate

  • Developing effective strategies that promote the persistence of all students in science

  • Creating course-based research experiences that will help students learn science by doing authentic research

  • Encouraging students to engage in research through “one-on-one” apprentice-based experiences

“The strategic theme-based approach is a new opportunity that enables the grantees to organize into smaller groups so that faculty from schools can come together throughout the next four years to share ideas, challenges, solutions,” said David J. Asai, director of HHMI’s precollege and undergraduate program. “We anticipate that the theme-based programs will provide useful models that will inform other institutions, including larger research universities, about strategies that might be replicated.”

Last April, HHMI invited 215 schools to apply for the competition. Of those invited, 187 schools submitted 182 proposals (two proposals were for joint programs). After two rounds of peer review, Asai and his team convened a panel of 23 leading scientists to discuss and rank the 84 final proposals. “Based on the reviewers' comments and the panel discussion, we recommended 43 awards to 47 schools. One of those is a joint award to the five undergraduate Claremont Colleges,” Asai said.

The five colleges based in Claremont, CA (Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, Pitzer, Pomona, and Scripps) submitted a joint proposal with the broad goal of working together to develop programs that will prepare undergraduates to become leaders in science and medicine. The schools, which have a combined population of 650 faculty and over 5,000 undergraduates, aim to emphasize quantitative and computational approaches in their life science courses. “In this competition, we initiated the joint proposal idea because we think that it will be increasingly important for small institutions to work together to remain excellent in science education,” said Asai.

Among the 43 grants are 11 Capstone Awards made to long-time recipients of HHMI funding. These schools, collectively among the best in the country at producing graduates who go on to science careers, will assess which elements of their various approaches to science education have been successful and why. “There is an enormous trove of know-how and wisdom at these schools, and we would like to see how that information can be shared more broadly,” said Asai. “We are looking forward to seeing how the Capstone awardees can provide leadership to some of the other grantees who are new to HHMI, as well as to advise HHMI about our efforts in undergraduate science education.”

One of the significant changes in the 2012 competition was the requirement that each application focus on a single overarching objective that defines the context for the proposed activities. In the past, applications were organized around four — often disconnected — components. Asai noted the previous modular design often led schools to “check the boxes” rather than encouraging them to think strategically about how the activities will contribute to a science education objective. Asai said the focused design of the proposals will hopefully make it easier for grantees to measure and understand their progress. “We want to find out what you are doing that is making undergraduates better prepared to be successful as future scientists, teachers, or members of a scientifically literate public,” he said.

Undergraduate Science Education and HHMI

Since 1988, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has awarded more than $870 million to 274 colleges and universities to support science education. Those grants have generally been awarded through two separate but complementary efforts, one aimed at undergraduate-focused institutions and the other at research universities. HHMI support has enabled nearly 85,000 students nationwide to work in research labs and developed programs that have helped 100,000 K-12 teachers learn how to teach science more effectively.

HHMI’s approach differs from that of many other organizations, including the federal government, because its science education awards are made at an institutional level and not to individuals. As a result, HHMI encourages science faculty and administrators at colleges and universities to work together to develop common educational goals — something they might not do otherwise. HHMI grants can allow an institution to try new and untested ideas that could not be readily implemented without the HHMI funds.

HHMI’s grants to small colleges and universities — the Institute’s longest running science education program — have had an important impact on undergraduate science education in the United States in several important ways:

  • Hands-on Research Is Expected: HHMI support has enabled many small schools to offer research opportunities to a large fraction of their undergraduates, and many students have come to expect that option. HHMI funds help schools support faculty mentors, thereby expanding the research capacity of an institution.

  • Infusion of Teaching Talent: Schools have used HHMI support to recruit science faculty, who bring novel ideas and expertise. The faculty often work and teach in areas new to the school, thereby creating new opportunities in the curriculum and research.

  • New Courses and Curricula: Undergraduate schools have used HHMI funds to develop courses that give their students exposure to newly emerging fields of science - often at the interfaces of traditional scientific disciplines.


About the Howard Hughes Medical Institute

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute plays a powerful role in advancing scientific research and education in the United States. Its scientists, located across the United States 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.