Catherine Mader

A major grant to Hope College from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) will help the college develop new ways to educate students in the natural and applied sciences through its nationally acclaimed model of teaching through participation in original research.

Hope is receiving a $1 million, four-year grant, part of more than $50 million the institute has awarded to 47 primarily undergraduate colleges and universities across the United States and Puerto Rico

Hope is the only college or university from Michigan to receive a grant.  In its announcement on Thursday, May 24, HHMI included the college among 11 select institutions identified as “Capstone” awardees, long-time recipients of HHMI funding that are “collectively among the best in the country at producing graduates who go on to science careers.”

The college had also received major program-development grants from HHMI in 1991, 1996, 2004 and 2008.  Through the new award, Hope will especially emphasize developing courses in the natural and applied sciences that will integrate experience in conducting original research, the better not only to teach students science but to get them enthused about it.

“One of the things that HHMI grants bring us is the ability to do big-picture thinking,” said Dr. Catherine Mader, a professor of physics at Hope who is also the program director for the new grant.

“We all know that the research experience is important,” Mader said.  “It has an impact not only on the skills students develop and what they learn, but on engaging them and encouraging them to pursue studies and careers in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] fields,” she said.

“We’re hoping that this award will help us take some of the things we’ve been doing all along, tie them together and bring them to a new level,” she said.

Each summer, between 140 and 180 students, primarily upperclassmen, participate in collaborative research with members of the faculty in the division of the natural and applied sciences full-time for eight to 10 weeks.  Many students also participate in research part-time during the school year.  The students generally work in the laboratories of individual faculty members or with teams of faculty who are engaged in a project cooperatively.

Mader noted that the new course-based experiences will provide such opportunities for more students, particularly for those at the beginning of their academic career.  As a model, the effort is drawing upon the college’s two-semester Phage Genomics course in biology.  Offered since the fall of 2008, and initially funded through another, 2007, grant to Hope from HHMI, the freshman-level course engages students in isolating and characterizing previously unknown bacteriophages.

“It has had a very positive impact on those students,” Mader said.  “Through the new grant we’re going to be exploring ways that we can provide that rich experience for more students in other disciplines.”

In keeping with the focus on expanding the research-learning experience, the division will also be developing a program to involve incoming freshmen in research during the summer between high school and the start of their studies at Hope.  The award will also provide support for an on-going program established through the 2008 HHMI grant to Hope:  FACES (Fostering a Community of Excellence in Science at Hope College), which provides students who are members of groups underrepresented in science careers with opportunities to build skills needed to succeed both academically and as future STEM professionals.

HHMI invited 215 colleges and universities to apply for grants, with 187 schools submitting a total of 182 proposals (two proposals were for joint programs).  The 43 awards to 47 schools (one award is a joint award to five colleges) were made following a multi-round review process.  The awards range from $800,000 to $1.5 million.

Since 1988, HHMI has awarded more than $870 million to 274 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 nearly 85,000 students nationwide to work in research labs and developed programs that have helped 100,000 K-12 teachers learn how to teach science more effectively.

HHMI’s approach differs from that of many other organizations, including the federal government, because its science education awards are made at an institutional level and not to individuals.  As a result, HHMI encourages science faculty and administrators at colleges and universities to work together to develop common educational goals—something they might not do otherwise.  HHMI grants can allow an institution to try new and untested ideas that could not be readily implemented without the HHMI funds.