UTPA receives $1.2 million grant to support creative science education
Posted: 04/22/2008
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The University of Texas-Pan American will continue to bring real-world lab experiences to rural South Texas middle-school students with the receipt of a $1.2 million grant announced April 22 from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the nation's largest private supporter of science education.

UTPA will use part of its four-year grant, one of 48 HHMI grants totaling $60 million awarded to undergraduate and masters colleges nationwide, to support its regional biotech mobile teaching laboratory - a 40-foot converted bus - that has served 9,275 middle school students, 196 teachers and 87 schools since it was initiated in 2006.

"Many of our schools are far away and poor and couldn't afford to get their students to our campus for outreach programs, so we take the campus to them," said Dr. Hassan Ahmad, chemistry department chair and UTPA's HHMI program director.

UTPA's lab, funded by a 2004 HHMI grant, is equipped with the latest in biotechnology lab equipment and inquiry-based learning modules augmented by a biomedical science curriculum that increases the learner's understanding of scientific research, health sciences and science in general.

Part of a $1.2 million grant from HHMI announced April 22 will support UTPA's Regional Biotech Mobile Laboratory that was initiated in 2006 and has served 9,275 students and 196 students at 87 South Texas schools.
In a typical school visit by UTPA's mobile lab, scientist-educators present a class of sixth through ninth-graders a pre-lab description of what they will do before the students suit up in white coats and goggles to perform experiments at one of 22 lab stations. All the projects apply to the real world: screening a patient for sickle cell anemia using the real gel tests used to diagnose the disease; testing hypothetical patients for HIV infections using real virus detection assays; performing DNA analyses on simulated crime scenes; and looking at their own DNA under a microscope.

While the mobile lab experience revs up kids' passion for science, Ahmad said he and his colleagues wanted to sustain that excitement long after the bus pulled away in order for the University's efforts to result in long-term success. This new HHMI grant will also fund for the first time a teacher training program to give local teachers more training than the usual two-day site visit provides. This summer program will bring six educators to the Edinburg campus every year for eight weeks to work on a research project they develop with a faculty mentor. The teachers will also create lessons and exercises they can take back to their classrooms.

"We love the new culture of research HHMI has helped us create on our campus, but some of us would rather sneak away on the bus and ride the range, waving microscopes instead of branding irons, "Ahmad told HHMI representatives. "It's so much more fun."

The HHMI grants support proposals that create more engaging science classes, bring real-world research experiences to students, and increase the diversity of students who study science.

"The undergraduate years are vital to attracting and retaining students who will be the future of science," Thomas R. Cech, HHMI president, said. "We want students to experience science as the creative, challenging and rewarding endeavor that it is."

The 2008 HHMI grant will not only support UTPA's mobile lab which gives students not able to visit campus hands-on opportunities to conduct real-world experiments but also will provide local teachers expanded opportunities for training and conducting research projects they can take back to the classroom.
Universities and colleges in 21 states and Puerto Rico will receive $700,000 to $1.6 million in grants awarded by HHMI. UTPA is one of two Texas higher education institutions to receive a grant; the other was Trinity University in San Antonio. Other universities receiving the grant, which this year included the largest number of new grantees in more than a decade, are such institutions as Wellesley College, Gonzaga University, Morehouse College and California State University-Fullerton.

The 2008 grant winners were selected through a stringent review process by distinguished scientists and educators that narrowed 192 applicants down to 48 recipients. HHMI had invited 224 higher education institutions with a track record of preparing undergraduate students for research careers to submit proposals.

"This diverse pool of grant recipients and large number of first-time awardees shows that HHMI is committed to fund new ideas and new ways of approaching science education," said Peter J. Bruns, HHMI's vice president for grants and special programs. "We want to help create successful models for teaching science that can spread throughout the higher education community."

HHMI is a nonprofit medical research organization headquartered in Chevy Chase, Md. and one of the world's largest philanthropies with an endowment of approximately $18.7 billion. The institute has invested more than $1.2 billion in grants toward life science education at both research universities and liberal arts colleges and to engage the nation's leading scientists in teaching. In 2007, HHMI launched the Science Education Alliance, which serves as a national resource for the development and distribution of innovative science education materials and methods.

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