Thirteen HHMI professors have proposed seven initiatives that they believe would improve the quality of undergraduate science education and student engagement.

Research universities in the United States excel at pushing the boundaries of scientific knowledge and work hard to attract and retain top scientists and engineers. But according to a group of Howard Hughes Medical Institute scientist-educators, that pursuit of knowledge often comes at the expense of undergraduate education. Largely to blame, they say, are university cultures that have evolved to reward research while marginalizing teaching.

In an opinion piece published in the January 14, 2011, issue of Science, the scientists suggest that research and teaching don’t have to compete but can complement each other. They propose seven initiatives that they believe would improve the quality of undergraduate science education and student engagement. “We’re trying change the mindset of the research faculty,” says Jo Handelsman, a professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at Yale University. “There’s a sense that teaching isn’t important in review or promotion or tenure, and unless research universities take a role in making teaching important, it’s going to be very difficult to get faculty to invest more and change their methods.”

All of the article’s 13 authors are HHMI Professors, a group of distinguished research scientists who receive funding from HHMI to develop education projects and curricula that get undergraduates excited about science. “Faculty at research universities, for the most part, are very interested in educating our future scientists as broadly and as well as we can,” says Diane O’Dowd, a professor of anatomy and neurobiology at the University of California, Irvine. “But there’s a constant struggle to be the effective teacher that you want to be because the reward and support system in universities focuses so heavily on research.”

The seven initiatives that the professors recommend are:

  • Educate faculty about research on learning in order to employ the most effective teaching methods;

  • Create awards and named professorships that provide research support for outstanding teachers;

  • Require excellence in teaching for promotion;

  • Create teaching discussion groups for peer support and feedback;

  • Create cross-disciplinary programs in college-level learning, enabling collaboration among education, psychology, and science or engineering departments;

  • Provide ongoing support for effective science teaching; and

  • Engage chairs, deans and presidents in creating a culture that values and promotes both teaching and science.

Support from HHMI has provided these scientists-educators with the opportunity to apply their research skills to teaching by studying which teaching techniques are more and less effective, something most faculty don’t have the time or resources to do, the professors say. Providing similar resources to help faculty nationwide experiment with teaching strategies would benefit both students and their professors, says O’Dowd, who has been able to experiment with teaching methods to find those that are most effective in large classes. “We’re all scientists, but most of us don’t teach scientifically. When I started evaluating my students’ progress in class and not just at exam time, I was excited to see that their learning improved because I was able to address misconceptions and clarify points that I had not realized were a problem.”

Increasing the importance of teaching within the tenure-review process—and emphasizing it within research universities as a whole—can have an effect that reaches beyond a campus’s confines. Changing course, the professors say, is vital for science education in this country. About 60 percent of the students who start college nationwide intending to major in science end up in other fields. “We’re very good at scaring people away from science, and we’re apparently scaring away some of our best students,” Handelsman says. “It comes down to the climate we create, and the weed-out mentality that’s a part of the science culture.”

With her University of Colorado colleague Bill Wood, Handelsman has created a summer training program to teach methods that faculty can use to help students learn. Training enough scientists to fill the fast-growing need will require a fundamental change in that culture, she says. “The most rapidly growing sector of jobs is in science and technology, and it’s not clear that the supply is currently there in our own education system,” she says. “But all we have to do is retain people who already say they’re interested in science to meet that need.”

The needs of science education, however, go beyond future scientists—gaps in the education of non-science majors must also be filled. “The future of the country is, in no small measure, dependent upon an educated populace, not only scientists and engineers, but also citizens who understand science,” says HHMI professor Richard Losick, a biologist at Harvard University. “If we’re to remain competitive in the future, then we, as a nation, need to be sophisticated about science. A proper understanding of science and its limitations, how it’s done, and how it’s acquired is something citizens need to vote about science and society.”

Losick notes that HHMI professors feel they are in a unique position to present their ideas. “The HHMI Professors Program gives us a bully pulpit to make a case for the teacher-scientist,” Losick says. Each of the authors has implemented variations on these suggested initiatives at their own universities. Losick created education discussion groups, small committees of people who attend colleagues’ lectures and provide constructive, confidential feedback. “You often see things you never thought of that you may want to introduce into your own teaching style. And it raises the visibility of teaching and how we teach,” Losick says.

More than anything, the authors hope that their initiatives can help universities provide science educators with the incentive and the tools to help ignite the spark of excitement in their undergraduates. Increasing the emphasis on teaching within the tenure process is only one piece of the puzzle. “Professors love the science itself, and they love the research. But students aren’t getting the sense that what they’re learning came out of a research lab and that it’s still being done—they get this very static portrait of the science we’ve all done, the science we’re enthralled with,” Handelsman says. Shifting to an approach that shows the dynamic nature of research can benefit both professors and their charges. “It’s very rewarding to teach more effectively because you can really transmit the nature of science,” she says.

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Jim Keeley 301.215.8858