STEM instruction reform focus of $1.4 million Hughes Medical grant

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WMU secured one of only 37 awards made by HHMI this year.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—A $1.4 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to Western Michigan University will be used to enhance undergraduate introduction to science, with the goal of attracting and retaining more students in the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The five-year research and development effort, announced May 29 by HHMI, will be centered on WMU's introductory courses in biological sciences. The grant is one of just 37 awards made by HHMI  this year to American research universities invited to compete in the institute's 2014 funding round. A total of 203 universities were invited to apply, and the eventual winners were selected after three rounds of peer review.

Objective of the funded project

"Developing Scientists as Teachers; Developing Students as Scientists: A Dual Approach to Transforming the Culture of Undergraduate Biology Education" is the title of the WMU effort. The extensive work will focus on both reforming the curriculum and enhancing the professional development of the faculty members and teaching assistants who introduce undergraduates to the scientific experience.

The aim of the work is to combat the dramatic loss of prospective scientists that occurs in the first months of American students' college careers, says Dr. Renee Schwartz, associate professor of biological sciences, who will direct the research along with her colleagues Dr. John R. Geiser, also an associate professor of biological sciences; and Dr. Susan R. Stapleton, dean of the Graduate College, a longtime science and science education researcher, and a previous HHMI grant recipient.

According to Hughes Medical Institute, nearly 40 percent—about 1.2 million—of the 3 million students who annually enter college do so with the intent to major in a STEM discipline. Only 40 percent of those prospective science students go on to earn a bachelor's degree in that STEM discipline, with most switching majors during their first two years on campus. Among minority students, 80 percent of those who begin in the STEM disciplines turn away from science during their freshman year.

Schwartz says the planned curricular changes at WMU will include making sure that students have an authentic scientific experience in their first science classes on campus. A typical introductory course, she says, will see students spend about half of the semester actively engaged in a science project that requires them to work as a team to develop a research question, design a research effort to seek answers, and collect and analyze data to answer their research questions.

"Students really need to know about the nature of science and the nature of scientific inquiry," Schwartz says. "Those two qualities are far too often overlooked. Students need the opportunity to learn what science is and what scientists do. By allowing them to have an authentic science experience early and to think of themselves as scientists, we can retain them and attract others."

Other elements of the effort

  • The use of peer leaders—students who have been engaged and successful in introductory classes who then work with the next incoming group as undergraduate lab assistants.
  • Development of science learning communities for students, student peer leaders, teaching assistants and faculty members.
  • Faculty professional development opportunities that include workshops for WMU instructors in all STEM disciplines as well as for STEM faculty from other colleges and universities in the region.

Schwartz says her department has a head start on the work, thanks to a two-year project just completed with funding from the National Science Foundation. That effort focused on reforming just one introductory biology course and its related labs. Although the project length was too short to measure changes in student retention, they were able to measure real improvement in student learning outcomes and the instructional ability of teaching assistants. The HHMI funding will leverage those findings to reform introductory courses in the department on a massive scale.

"We're really seeking to establish transformative programs that help students integrate their acquired knowledge into a bigger whole," Schwartz says. "That bigger whole is all about passion and commitment to the discipline of science."

Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Headquartered in Chevy Chase, Maryland, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute plays an influential role in advancing scientific research and education in the United States. Its scientists, located across the nation, have made important discoveries that advance fundamental understanding of biology and its relation to human disease. The institute also aims to transform science education into a creative interdisciplinary endeavor that reflects the excitement of real research. In fiscal year 2013, HHMI invested $727 million in U.S. research and provided $80 million in grants and other support for science education.

WMU's last HHMI award, directed by Stapleton and co-directed by Schwartz was a four-year, $1 million grant received in 2010 to enhance the science training of prospective high school science teachers. That effort concludes in 2015.