Focusing on STEM

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute awards the University of Miami $1.5 million to improve science education.

From UM News

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (June 04, 2014) — The University of Miami is one of only 37 research universities in the United States to receive a Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant to improve how science is taught. The initiative enables schools to focus on significant and sustained improvement in retaining students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

UM’s five-year grant of $1.5 million, part of Momentum2: The Breakthrough Campaign for the University of Miami, will focus on course-based research experiences, building on previous grants from HHMI that created innovative biology labs to engage freshman students in “discovering knowledge, not just being receptacles of knowledge,” according to program director Michael Gaines, professor of biology in the UM College of Arts and Sciences. Undergraduate students who participated in these early research experiences are twice as likely to do independent research later and have a 15 percent higher persistence rate in STEM courses than students who take traditional lecture and lab courses, Gaines said.

“STEM education continues to grow in importance, at every level,” said Leonidas G. Bachas, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Projects of this kind, focusing on how we teach our STEM courses, not just what we teach in them, are critical to making sure that undergraduate research takes place early-on among our students—a necessary strategy if we want to yield the scientists and educated workforce we need for an innovative tomorrow.”

At the completion of this five-year grant, UM will have 25 years of continuous funding from the institute. In addition to funding those early-engagement biology labs, previous funding has been used to develop strong partnerships with Miami Dade College and to work with Miami-Dade County public middle schools to engage students in science education early on, with hopes of increased participation at the undergraduate level. The current project will focus on integrating chemistry and biology in the early-engagement research-based lab model, Gaines said.

“We are very excited about the pedagogy of these new laboratories that merge biology with chemistry in a unique environment. This will show the multidisciplinary nature of modern day research, which is often overlooked in traditional laboratory settings,” said Marc Knecht, associate professor of chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Once the new integrated labs are piloted at UM, they will be exported, via graduate student instructors, to Miami Dade College.

Gaines said that this component is a major focus of the project because 50 percent of all under-represented groups in college are in associate degree programs. “Our program is a way to reach talented students who often are overlooked and whose eyes have never been opened to science, and with the hope that they will continue on to four-year university degrees.”

UM Executive Vice President and Provost Thomas J. LeBlanc emphasized that “our partnership with Miami Dade College has provided an important pathway to UM for students from Miami-Dade County, and now, we have support to follow the path in the other direction and will reach many more students than previously.”

Since 1988, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has awarded more than $935 million in grants to 274 public and private colleges and universities to support science education in the United States. HHMI support has enabled more than 92,000 students nationwide to work in research labs and developed programs that have helped 109,000 K-12 teachers learn how to teach science more effectively.

“Our nation’s research universities are absolutely critical to sustaining our scientific excellence,” said HHMI President Robert Tjian. “Simply put, we are challenging these universities to focus their attention on improving science education so that a greater number of talented students remain in science.”

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