September 18, 2002— What would you do with a million dollars? Twenty scientists at research universities across the nation have 20 different answers. They all share a goal, however: to make science more engaging for undergraduates. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) today announced their appointment as its first HHMI Professors. Each is a leading researcher who will receive $1 million over the next four years to bring the creativity they have shown in the lab to the undergraduate classroom.
“Research is advancing at a breathtaking pace, but many university students are still learning science the same old way, by listening to lectures, memorizing facts and doing cookbook lab experiments that thousands have done before,” says HHMI President Thomas R. Cech. “We want to empower scientists at research universities to become more involved in breaking the mold and bringing the excitement of research to science education.” Cech is a biochemist who continued teaching undergraduates at the University of Colorado at Boulder even after he won a Nobel Prize.
HHMI isn’t the only one to see opportunities for improving the way undergraduates are taught science. The National Academy of Sciences, the Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University and the National Science Foundation all have studied the matter and made recommendations for more engaging and effective approaches to undergraduate science education.
Teaching of undergraduates tends to be undervalued at research universities, notes Peter J. Bruns, vice president for grants and special programs at HHMI. “By rewarding great teaching and supporting a synergistic interaction between research and undergraduate education, we hope to sow seeds of a fundamental change in the culture of research universities. We want the HHMI Professors to demonstrate that active, productive scientists can be effective teachers too.” Bruns, a leading geneticist from Cornell University, also taught undergraduates throughout his research career.
HHMI invited 84 research universities to nominate faculty members. A panel of scientists and educators reviewed 150 nominees’ proposals and eventually selected 20 HHMI Professors at 19 universities in 13 states (See list of Professors and their institutions below.) All are tenured faculty members. They include nine women and three members of minority groups.
Some will focus on attracting more women and minorities into science; others want undergraduates to understand the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of science and its rapidly emerging new fields. Some will focus on providing early research experiences, and others will develop new high-tech teaching tools. For example:
As researchers recognized in their fields, the HHMI Professors will participate in HHMI investigators’ scientific meetings at Institute headquarters in Chevy Chase, Maryland. They will serve as a resource for scientists striving to improve undergraduate education nationwide.
Photo: Jim Zietz, LSU University Relations