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U.S. Colleges Push the Education Envelope

22 April 2008 (All day)
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Matthew Septimus

Future scientists.
Barnard students use fluorescence microscopy and digital imaging to determine whether cells are dividing in fruit fly testes.

In addition to being the spice of life, variety is important for a good undergraduate science education. That's the philosophy behind $60 million in grants announced today from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). The money, slated for 48 liberal arts colleges in 21 states and Puerto Rico, is meant to improve how students learn science and to prepare them for scientific careers.

The program, which alternates with a similar effort supporting research universities, gives schools anywhere from $700,000 to $1.6 million over 4 years. This is the sixth round of funding and features projects such as paying students to work in a lab and attend school full-time and producing a documentary on successful alumni scientists. Some 192 of the 224 invited schools submitted proposals, which were then winnowed by a panel of HHMI investigators, previous HHMI grant recipients, and other scientists. Twelve of the schools are first-time awardees.

"We're trying to approach education the way we approach our science," says Peter Bruns, vice president for grants and special programs at HHMI: "Ask clear questions, do experiments, measure the results, and go on from there." In addition to increasing the nation's pool of scientists, Bruns says, the program aims to overhaul the way science is taught at the undergraduate level.

"It's made us think very hard about how we teach," says Paul Hertz, a biologist at Barnard College in New York City, who's been involved with all five grants the school has received since 1992. Courses in neuroscience, bioinformatics, and genomics--now part of the college's curriculum--were developed with HHMI funds.

Many students at Hunter College in New York City must fit college in around full-time jobs. The school plans to use part of its $1.4 million grant to pay students to attend classes full-time while they also work in a research lab on campus. "They are essentially allowed to just do research and really see what it is all about," says biologist Shirley Raps.

First-time recipient North Carolina Central University in Durham will put much of its $900,000 grant toward increasing the number of science majors, which currently account for just 5% of the student body. The school will begin courting bright students as early as middle school, bringing them to campus for summer research programs.

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