Minority-Serving Schools Targeted by Howard Hughes Medical Institute STEM Grants

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by Lydia Lum

Ten minority-serving institutions are among 47 small colleges and universities receiving science education grants totaling $50 million-plus from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

The four-year grants, which range from $800,000 to $1.5 million, are aimed at providing students with real-world research experiences, creating more engaging science courses and increasing the diversity of students in the sciences.

“It’s time for us to be more in tune with what’s going on elsewhere, rather than just what we’ve always known and done here,” says Dr. Bettye Sue Hennington, professor of biology at Tougaloo College. The historically Black institution in Mississippi, which secured a $1.3 million HHMI award, has about 350 undergraduates majoring in STEM disciplines, comprising about one-third of the student body.

HHMI officials say the grants are designed to encourage long-term collaboration among the schools, such as sharing strategies with peers addressing similar needs on their campuses. The main activities of the funded proposals incorporate themes such as preparing undergraduates to become K-12 teachers trained in inquiry-based learning, developing strategies that improve retention of all students in science, and encouraging students to engage in research through one-on-one, apprentice-based experiences.

The grant to Tougaloo will finance multiple initiatives benefiting students and faculty, Hennington says. A top priority is establishing a residential learning community for 30 to 45 undergraduate STEM majors as early as the fall semester. The move would enhance their undergraduate experience, and they would be known as Howard Hughes Scholars. Generally, about one-third of Tougaloo STEM graduates advance to professional schools in those disciplines, Hennington says, with another one-third choosing graduate schools and the rest entering the workforce.

The HHMI award enables Tougaloo to engage a consultant to revitalize pedagogies among its 19 science faculty, Hennington says. About one-fourth of them have taught there for 30 years apiece with scant opportunity for professional development.

Under the grant, Tougaloo will also consult with a curriculum specialist to revamp courses. “We have traditional biology, chemistry and physics but we’re not interdisciplinary enough, and, considering where our graduates go once they leave here, we need interdisciplinary coursework,” Hennington says.

The Hispanic-serving Whittier College in southern California secured an HHMI award for the first time. The $800,000 will allow faculty and students at Whittier, just south of Los Angeles, to work with science educators at two public high schools in implementing curriculum enhancements to meet new statewide standards, says Dr. Sharon Herzberger, college president. Both secondary schools have enrollments of 70 percent Hispanic or more, she says.

Herzberger calls the opportunity afforded by HHMI valuable for students at Whittier because about 25 percent of its graduates become teachers, principals or school superintendents. Hispanics make up about one-third of the 1,600 Whittier students.

Awards to the other MSIs will finance, among other things, bridge programs for incoming college freshmen, recruitment of new faculty and research opportunities for undergraduates. In addition to Whittier, the Hispanic-Serving Institutions are University of Texas-Pan American with $1.2 million, University of Puerto Rico-Cayey with $900,000, and University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez with $1.3 million. In addition to Tougaloo, the HBCUs are North Carolina Central University with $1.4 million, Spelman College with $1 million, Xavier University with $1 million, Tuskegee University with $1 million, and Morehouse College with $800,000.

“We’re delighted so many of the grantees are minority-serving schools,” says Dr. David Asai, director of the Institute’s pre-college and undergraduate program. “These small schools are doing terrific things and can serve as models for larger institutions.”          

Since 1988, the nonprofit Institute has awarded more than $870 million to 274 colleges and universities to support science education. The grants to small colleges and universities comprise the Institute’s longest-running science education program.

In addition to the monetary awards, Spelman, Morehouse and Xavier are among 11 grantees publicly recognized by the Institute for their sustained excellence in undergraduate science education. Asai says HHMI officials hope the 11 schools will identify key strategies that have helped them overcome barriers over the years in order for other grantee schools to learn from their experiences.

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