New funding from HHMI will be used to scale up a successful summer program that aims to enable thousands of college and university science faculty to receive intensive professional development designed to improve undergraduate biology education.

New funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI)will be used to scale up a successful summer program that aims to enable thousands of college and university science faculty to receive intensive professional development designed to improve undergraduate biology education.

The $3 million grant will expand the National Academies Summer Institute for Undergraduate Education in Biology from a single location at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, to a total of nine regional centers over the next five years. Several of the new Summer Institute sites will debut this summer in New Haven, Boulder, Minneapolis, and Olympia, Washington.

“The Summer Institute is very successful, but at its previous scale, it could not reach enough faculty,” says Sean B. Carroll, HHMI’s vice president for science education. “With this grant, we hope to greatly expand the number of faculty members who participate and bring what they learn back to their campuses. The scale of this effort is aimed at changing biology teaching across the country.”

Since 2004, 303 faculty and instructional staff members from 94 research universities have been active participants in the Summer Institute, which aims to improve biology teaching by encouraging faculty to approach teaching with the same analytical skills they use in the lab. Participating faculty use "scientific teaching" for approximately 100,000 undergraduates each year, but Carroll said the program needed to be scaled up in order to have a major impact on the teaching and learning of modern biology in the United States.

The expanded program will eventually be open to faculty at a wider range of institutions; only faculty and staff at major research universities have been able to participate in the past. In 2011, the institutes are welcoming faculty from all doctoral-degree granting institutions, not just the research-intensive universities. In future years, faculty from undergraduate-focused state schools, liberal arts institutions, and community colleges also will be invited to participate.

Revamping Biology Education

The Summer Institute was created in response to the National Academy of Sciences’ Bio2010 report, which concluded that biology faculty needed to become more familiar with the science behind successful teaching and student learning. “We thought there ought to be something similar to Cold Spring Harbor courses for people who are interested in teaching, that deep immersion experience,” says Jay Labov, the National Academies’ senior advisor for education and communication.

At the same time, Jo Handelsman, who was at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, had proposed a similar training program in her application for the HHMI Professor. “People have a strong tendency to teach the way they were taught,” says Handelsman, who moved to Yale University in 2010. “But we know that lectures are the worst way to teach if you care about student learning.”

In 2003, Handelsman and Bill Wood at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who co-lead the Summer Institute, brought together top undergraduate science educators and developed the curriculum for a week-long training course. That course was designed to engage participants in methods that show them how to incorporate active-learning techniques into their classes, including interactive projects and discussion groups. They could also see how to continually assess whether students are really learning. The instructors at the Summer Institute use the recommended methods with the participants, which allows them to see how classes should be taught and then spend time developing their own curriculum using those methods.

“It is a way of not just preaching to people,” says David J. Asai, director of precollege and undergraduate programs at HHMI, which has spent over $1 million to support the Summer Institute since 2004. “It is saying, ‘We are going to teach you some ways of thinking about your classroom that you haven’t had time to consider before, and we are going to approach it in a scientific way.’”

Michelle Withers knows that can be a difficult task without training. “I had been trying to improve my teaching, but I didn’t know what to do,” says Withers, now a biology professor at West Virginia University. “I was still rewriting the book on PowerPoint slides. I was still the talking head.”

Withers attended the Summer Institute in 2004 and was so excited by what she learned that she started telling everyone about it. First, she told her colleagues. Then she set up workshops for faculty and teaching assistants. Eventually, Withers acquired NSF funding to run her own regional Summer Institute. “I really drank the Kool-Aid,” Withers says.

Now, because of the Summer Institute and other education initiatives, Withers thinks it is easier to find out about good teaching. “I think the conversation has really changed,” she says. “People are still lecturing, mostly, but they are aware of the movement toward active learning and are talking about it.”

Expansion Extends Eligible Faculty

After running the Summer Institute in Wisconsin for seven years, it seemed clear that they were ready to take the next step, Wood says. “It seemed like the natural next step to set up regional institutes,” he explains. “Hopefully it will help build a larger community of people who believe in what we are doing.”

Just like the Madison Summer Institute, the regional Summer Institutes will be organized by long-time attendees and taught by many of the same instructors to keep the experience as consistent as possible.

In addition to the expansion itself, HHMI’s funding will pay for an intensive assessment of the program, including hiring two professional evaluators. Previous studies have shown that the Summer Institute’s training has an impact on the faculty who attend, but Handelsman and Wood want to find out whether it is extending to the larger science teaching community at participants’ schools. “We have some evidence that things are happening, but we’d like to get more and better evidence,” Wood says.

Asai is particularly interested in learning the best way to make sure that the lessons learned by Summer Institute participants reach other faculty at their institutions. “What are the elements that work best to make this really transformative and sustainable?”

The 2011 regional Summer Institutes are:

Midwest Institute

  • July 10-15, 2011
  • University of Minnesota
  • Contact: Robin Wright,
  • Target states: Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin.

Mountain West Institute

  • Aug. 1-5, 2011
  • University of Colorado, Boulder
  • Contact: Jenny Knight,
  • Target states: Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, Wyoming.

Northeast Institute

  • Aug. 8-13, 2011
  • Yale University
  • Contact: James Young,
  • Target states: Connecticut, District of Columbia, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont.

Pacific Northwest Institute

  • Sept. 7-11, 2011
  • Evergreen State College (Olympia, WA)
  • Contact: Clarissa Dirks,
  • Target states: Alaska, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington

The application deadline has already closed for the 2011 Summer Institute in Madison, Wisconsin. Interested faculty can apply for the other summer institutes online at


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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