HHMI has launched four-year, $1.8 million science education experiment that will bring together four universities to create and share effective models for teaching interdisciplinary science.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has launched a new science education experiment that will bring together four universities with an ambitious goal: to create and share effective models for teaching interdisciplinary science, including new courses and ways of assessing how well they work.

The four-year, $1.8 million National Experiment in Undergraduate Science Education, or NEXUS, will bring together Purdue University; the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC); the University of Maryland, College Park, and the University of Miami. Each institution will work on creating a different aspect of the curriculum that connects biology with physics, math, and chemistry.

We really believe in the word ‘experiment,’ and here is an experiment that is being run on a larger scale than one discipline or one institution.

Sean B. Carroll

The four universities will work together to develop the curriculum and use the same set of assessment tools. In addition, each school will implement at least part of the curriculum developed by the other three universities. “We really believe in the word ‘experiment,’ and here is an experiment that is being run on a larger scale than one discipline or one institution,” says Sean B. Carroll, HHMI’s vice president for science education.

Scientists have become accustomed to working across disciplinary boundaries, but the classes offered by many universities have been the same for decades. David J. Asai, HHMI’s director of precollege and undergraduate education, says the emphasis will be on creating an interdisciplinary curriculum that can be used at different types of schools with different students. The participants will also figure out how to move beyond testing students’~knowledge of facts to assessing their ability~to demonstrate scientific competencies, such as applying knowledge to analyze a problem.

“We are asking these four schools to do something hard, which is come up with a product that is greater than the sum of the parts,” Asai says. “I think it can be challenging for any college or university to decide whether to make changes to their curriculum, and we can alleviate that by paying real attention to the assessment.”

This collaboration comes at a time when many colleges, universities, and scientific societies are considering how to do a better job of preparing students to become interdisciplinary scientists and clinicians, says Cynthia Bauerle, who oversees the NEXUS project and is a senior program officer in HHMI’s precollege and undergraduate program. Bauerle points to two significant examples: the National Academy of Sciences report, A New Biology for the 21st Century, envisions an interdisciplinary future for biology research; and Vision and Change, a 2011 report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Foundation, that makes recommendations for reforming the way that undergraduate biology is taught.

“There are many conversations heading in the same direction, addressing how young people should be trained to participate in biomedicine and medical practice in the future,” Bauerle explains. “NEXUS may be nicely positioned to be a hub for that broader national conversation.”

Start with an Experiment

The groundwork for what became the NEXUS project began in 2009. HHMI asked research universities to suggest experiments in science education, and a common theme emerged when several schools said they wanted to address issues raised by a 2009 report that examined the scientific competencies needed by medical students.

That report, called Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians, was developed by a committee of scientists, physicians, and science educators convened by the Association of American Medical Colleges and HHMI. It recommended fundamental changes in undergraduate education and outlined eight interdisciplinary competencies that science undergraduate students should master before they go on to medical school. For example, instead of requiring specific physics courses, premedical students would be expected to “demonstrate knowledge of basic physical principles and their application to the understanding of living systems.” They could learn that the traditional way, in physics courses, or in a new generation of interdisciplinary classes.

HHMI staff brought the schools together. “It was a surprise, but there is real strength in working together,” says Kaci Thompson of the University of Maryland, College Park. “We’re talking about not just one course; we’re talking about the entire introductory preparation.”

Each school participating in the NEXUS project will be responsible for focusing on specific topics. The schools will create interdisciplinary modules that can be dropped into an existing course or integrated into the redesign of an entire curriculum.

Purdue University is revising the introductory chemistry curriculum to include more biological chemistry with a focus on active learning approaches.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County is infusing mathematical modeling into their introductory biology course, including quantitative reasoning skills and mathematical approaches to understand biological processes and living systems.

The University of Maryland, College Park is revising their introductory physics course for biology majors to present physics concepts in a biological context.

The University of Miami is developing biomedical case studies that will challenge students to use scientific inquiry to analyze the biology, physics, chemistry, and math involved in human health and disease.

Although the modules will be focused on premedical and other pre-health students, the NEXUS participants agree that they will be relevant to most undergraduate biology majors.

The Competency Challenge

In addition to their individual projects, the four schools are working together to make sure they meet common goals and that the courses are designed and measured in a unified way. To do that, faculty from the schools are collaborating through regular meetings and conference calls to talk about their shared challenges and successes. “The most exciting part of this project is working with people from other schools on an education project, which I have never done before,” said Michael Gaines, of the University of Miami.

The biggest challenge may come as schools begin assessing what students are learning. Using competencies to describe what students should know is becoming more common, but there has been little rigorous study of how best to define the depth of knowledge students must possess in order to demonstrate competence. HHMI has hired David Hanauer, an evaluation specialist at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, to help coordinate the teams' assessment work and develop their capacity to tackle competency-based assessment approaches. “What they learn about how to implement a competency-based curriculum will be applicable not only to this conversation but also to other institutions that are trying to do the same thing,” Bauerle explains. “What are the sticking points? Which assessment strategies work?”

To make sure that the NEXUS project will reach the broadest group possible, HHMI has appointed an interdisciplinary advisory board of leaders in education reform. Chemists are especially interested in how the suggested changes will work, says Marc Loudon at Purdue, which is working on changes to its introductory chemistry courses to include more biology. “We need to look at the different topics we’ve taught and how we teach them,” he says. “We need to weed out the topics that we don’t need and teach the stuff that is important more thoroughly.”

Philip Rous from UMBC, who chairs the NEXUS steering committee, says that if all these pieces come together the impact could go beyond just modules that faculty can use in classes. “If you are going to build something like that, and you can test it out at different types of schools across the country, then you have the potential for a national impact,” he says. “Finding out something that is completely new, that is what makes this exciting.”


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

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