The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) is challenging colleges and universities to think creatively about how they educate future scientists, science teachers, and a scientifically-literate public. The Institute has invited 215 undergraduate-focused colleges and universities from across the country to apply for a total of $60 million in science education grants.
HHMI has changed its approach to these awards in hopes of getting better information about which kinds of science education programs succeed in developing the talent and leadership skills of students. Among the changes:
•Institutions will be asked to identify an overarching educational objective aimed at developing undergraduate talent.
•Schools will be encouraged to create joint programs with other eligible institutions to build on shared science education interests.
•Colleges and universities that have received multiple education grants from HHMI will be asked to share the costs of these successful activities.
“The question is not whether we can produce more scientists and science teachers, but whether we can produce better ones,” says David J. Asai, director of HHMI’s precollege and undergraduate program. “That is our goal with these changes.”
For more than two decades, HHMI has provided grants to support undergraduate education at colleges and universities. These grants to colleges and universities—HHMI’s longest running science education program—have focused on transforming science education in the United States by encouraging science teaching that is hands-on, research-oriented, and interdisciplinary.
The new grants will range from $800,000 to $1.6 million over four years for individual institutions and up to $4.8 million over four years for those applying jointly. Applications are due October 4, 2011, and the grants will be announced in the spring 2012.
“Grants of this size can have a big impact at these small schools,” says Sean B. Carroll, HHMI’s vice president for science education. “A small number of faculty working together can quickly make changes that will have an immediate impact on the quality of science education for their students.”
Since 1988, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has awarded $820 million to 264 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 more than 80,000 students nationwide to work in research labs and developed programs that have helped 95,000 K-12 teachers learn how to teach science more effectively.
HHMI has adopted an approach that differs from that of many other organizations, including the federal government, because its awards are made at an institutional level and not to individuals and because a single grant can support a diverse spectrum of educational activities. As a result, HHMI requires science faculty and administrators at colleges and universities to work together to develop a common educational goal—something they might not do otherwise. Some HHMI grantees have said the process of bringing different parts of the university together to focus on science education can be as valuable as the grant itself. The grant can allow an institution to try new and untested ideas that could not be readily implemented without the HHMI funds.
Institutional grants are particularly suited to undergraduate colleges and universities, Asai says. The small size of most of these schools can make them more nimble than larger research universities and better able to quickly develop, test, and adopt new education techniques. Undergraduate-focused institutions already have an exceptional record of sending students to graduate school and medical school and careers in science and academia. “For many of these schools, undergraduate learning is the reason they exist,” Asai says. “Faculty are expected to interact in a meaningful way with students.”
The biggest change in the new 2012 competition is the requirement that applicants focus on a single educational goal that unites their proposed science education program. In the past, HHMI’s grants have allowed applicants to submit projects in four categories: student research, faculty development, curriculum and laboratory development, and outreach. Although schools were not expected to put forward a program in every category, Asai notes the modular design of the grant competition often led schools to “check the boxes” rather than encouraging them to think strategically about how these activities can help them reach an overarching science education objective.
Under the new guidelines, the grant proposal must support the institution’s larger science education goal. Asai hopes that this new, focused design will make it easier for grantees to measure and understand which components of a program are successful. “We want to get away from just counting the numbers of students who do research. 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 says. “It is a harder question, but it is an important question.”
Schools can also work together to create joint proposals that build on shared resources. Asai notes that the collaborative option may be particularly attractive to this group of schools because some may have only a handful of faculty members in any one science department or research area. Through collaboration, schools may be able to move into the rapidly expanding range of interdisciplinary research activities and provide their students with access to a broader array of topics.
“It won’t work for every school, but it is worth considering for schools that are near each other and have complementary strengths,” Asai says.
HHMI wants to ensure that schools that have received consistent support from the Institute for the past two decades demonstrate a commitment to their science education programs. “If a program is effective and has become a critical part of your school, then at some point there has to be a handoff of responsibility,” Asai explains.
Schools that have had four previous grants will be required to come up with funding for four percent of the grant. Those with five grants will need to fund eight percent, and those with six will need to fund 12 percent. Many schools are already doing this, but had not been asked to demonstrate and document their commitment.