Luther College receives $1.5 million grant for science education

Originally posted: May 24, 2012

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute announced today it has selected Luther College as one of 47 small colleges and universities in the United States to receive grants totaling more than $50 million that will enable the schools to work together to create more engaging science classes, bring real-world research experiences to students and increase the diversity of students who study science.

Each four-year grant is in the range of $800,000 to $1.5 million, funds that will have a big impact at these primarily undergraduate institutions. Luther College has been awarded a $1.5 million grant and is one of eight schools receiving a first-time HHMI award.

Robert Tjian, HHMI President, stated that the small size of most of these schools can make them more nimble than larger research universities and better able to quickly develop and test new ideas.

Luther is one of five schools to receive a HHMI award in the Preparing Future K-12 Teachers program. Others were Lewis Clark College – $1 million, St. Olaf College – $1 million, University of Puerto Rico – $900,000, and Whittier College – $800,000.

Awards were granted to support strategies that include providing authentic research experiences to students who will become teachers, engaging undergraduates in K-12 outreach activities and creating joint faculty appointments shared by education and science departments.

Tjian said a key component of the HHMI grant program is the incentive for these institutions to work collaboratively.

“Collaboration is a vital activity that drives science forward,” said Tjian. “We believe that collaboration among institutions can have a similar catalytic effect on science  education, and we look forward to seeing these schools work together to develop new science and teaching programs that inspire their students.”

Luther President Richard Torgerson spoke about the excitement and enthusiasm the HHMI grant has generated on campus.

“We are deeply grateful to HHMI for this award that will provide extraordinary opportunity and resources to link two of Luther’s signature programs — the sciences and teacher education,” President Torgerson said.

“Collectively, the science departments and education department graduate over 25 percent of Luther students.  The HHMI award provides a major boost to new initiatives that will transform science education and prepare our students to become future teacher-leaders in science education in the nation’s secondary and elementary schools,” he said.

President Torgerson noted that Luther recently completed a $30 million expansion and renovation of its science facilities, which are designed to encourage and promote student-faculty interaction both within and outside the classroom and laboratory. The initiatives funded by the HHMI award will accelerate and enhance those interactions between the science and education disciplines.

Sean B. Carroll, vice president of science education at HHMI, stated that the award is an investment in the colleges and universities that are developing these innovative approaches.

“What happens during the undergraduate years is vital to the development of the student, whether she will be a scientist, a science educator, or a member of society who is scientifically curious and literate,” Carroll said.

“HHMI is investing in these schools because they have shown they are superb incubators of new ideas and models that might be replicated by other institutions to improve how science is taught in college,” he said. “We know that these schools have engaged faculty. They care deeply about teaching and how effectively their students are learning about science.”

President Torgerson lauded the work of the Luther team of faculty and staff who developed the proposal for the science-education initiatives to be funded by the HHMI award.

The team included: Eric Baack, assistant professor of biology; Scott Carlson, associate professor of biology; Mark Eichinger, associate professor of biology; Jodi Enos-Berlage, associate professor of biology; Barb Bohach, associate professor of education; Deb Fordice, assistant professor of education, Jim Langholz, associate professor of education; Birgitta Meade, instructor in education; Deborah Norland, professor of education; Richard Bernatz, professor of mathematics; Brad Chamberlain, associate professor of chemistry; Erin Flater, assistant professor of physics; and Jeanie Lovell, director of corporate and foundation relations.

More than 30 Luther faculty members from seven academic departments were involved in the conversations leading to a comprehensive grant proposal that was developed over five months during the summer and fall of 2011. The result of that interdisciplinary collaboration was a proposal with initiatives that are outcomes-based, grounded in research, and designed to prepare leaders in science education.

“I commend our faculty leaders for the extraordinary time and energy they devoted to completing this winning proposal,” said President Torgerson. “The proposed initiatives build from institutional strengths and reflect important academic priorities.  The process has also generated a timely focus on science education and stimulated thoughtful dialogue and creative strategies.”

Long-Term Collaboration

HHMI officials noted that this science education initiative is designed to encourage long-term collaboration among the colleges and universities. As the schools carry out their programs, they will have the opportunity to discuss strategies regularly with other schools working on a similar problem.

The principal activities of the programs are grouped into six strategic themes:

  • Preparing undergraduates to become K-12 teachers who understand inquiry-based learning
  • Creating curricula that emphasize learning competencies instead of simply checklists of courses
  • Defining and assessing what it means for a student to be scientifically literate
  • Developing effective strategies that promote the persistence of all students in science
  • Creating course-based research experiences that will help students learn science by doing authentic research
  • Encouraging students to engage in research through “one-on-one” apprentice-based experiences

“The strategic theme-based approach is a new opportunity that enables the grantees to organize into smaller groups so that faculty from schools can come together throughout the next four years to share ideas, challenges, solutions,” said David J. Asai, director of HHMI’s precollege and undergraduate program.

“We anticipate that the theme-based programs will provide useful models that will inform other institutions, including larger research universities, about strategies that might be replicated,” Asai said.

Last April, HHMI invited 215 schools to apply for the competition. Of those invited, 187 schools submitted 182 proposals (two proposals were for joint programs). After two rounds of peer review, Asai and his team convened a panel of 23 leading scientists to discuss and rank the 84 final proposals.

“Based on the reviewers’ comments and the panel discussion, we recommended 43 awards to 47 schools. One of those is a joint award to the five Claremont colleges,” Asai said.

Among the 43 grants are 11 Capstone Awards made to long-time recipients of HHMI funding. These schools, collectively among the best in the country at producing graduates who go on to science careers, will assess which elements of their various approaches to science education have been successful and why.

“There is an enormous trove of know-how and wisdom at these schools, and we would like to see how that information can be shared more broadly,” said Asai. “We are looking forward to seeing how the Capstone awardees can provide leadership to some of the other grantees who are new to HHMI, as well as to advise HHMI about our efforts in undergraduate science education.”

One of the significant changes in the 2012 competition was the requirement that each application focus on a single overarching objective that defines the context for the proposed activities. In the past, applications were organized around four — often disconnected — components.

Asai noted the previous modular design often led schools to “check the boxes” rather than encouraging them to think strategically about how the activities will contribute to a science education objective. Asai said the focused design of the proposals will hopefully make it easier for grantees to measure and understand their progress.

“We want to find out what you are doing that is making undergraduates better prepared to be successful as future scientists, teachers, or members of a scientifically literate public,” he said.

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