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UTPA receives $1.2 million HHMI grant to support science education
Posted: 05/29/2012
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The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) awarded The University of Texas-Pan American a $1.2 million grant to support undergraduate science education initiatives.

The $1.2 million grant from HHMI to UT Pan American announced May 24 will support a variety of initiatives in science education at at the University, including an intensive research training program for undergraduate students and the development of new and innovative science curricula.
UTPA was among 47 small colleges and universities in the United States to receive the competitive grants made available to small colleges and universities to create more engaging science classes, bring real-world research experiences to students and increase the diversity of students who study science. A total of 187 higher education institutions applied.

"This award will help Pan Am advance one step closer to truly transforming the Valley through STEM education and STEM research," UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen said. "We appreciate the past support from HHMI and the confidence that it has in the University to produce graduates who are not only scientifically literate, but will also become tomorrow's educators, creators of knowledge, and champions of innovation."

In a May 24 press release announcing the grants, Sean Carroll, vice president of science education at HHMI, said the schools selected have shown that they are superb incubators of new ideas and models that might be replicated by other institutions to improve how science is taught in college.

"We know that these schools have engaged faculty. They care deeply about teaching and how effectively their students are learning about science," Carroll said in the release.

Dr. John Trant, dean of UTPA's College of Science and Mathematics who will be the grant's program director, said the four year grant will help the University build on the current successes that have resulted from prior HHMI funding, which has supported high school and undergraduate research experiences, the Regional Biotech Mobile Laboratory, a bioethics course and a core research equipment lab. Trant said 62 percent of past HHMI supported undergraduate students pursued either a graduate degree or are accepted into medical school, and 100 percent of the high school students matriculated to college.

"Graduate rates have steadily increased, particularly in the sciences, and the number of students who pursue Ph.D.s and complete them in science-related disciplines is low but growing. We want to accelerate that trend," he said. "The overarching goal of the UTPA HHMI program is to increase the number of Hispanics who pursue a graduate education in science research subsequently increasing the number of highly educated underrepresented individuals in the scientific work force."

The 2012 HHMI college initiative is focused on the following strategic themes: preparing future K-12 teachers, creating competency-based curricula, defining and assessing scientific literacy, developing strategies to promote student persistence in science, and creating course-based and apprentice -based research experiences.

UTPA's HHMI program includes the development of a new undergraduate Leaders in Scientific Research Program that will promote interdisciplinary scientific inquiry, develop students' leadership skills and prepare students for graduate school. A cohort of 12 students each year will be selected to enter the intensive research training program in the summer between their sophomore and junior year and be supported in the program two full years until graduation. They will work with a faculty mentor on a research project during that time and as a Capstone will have to either write a thesis or publish a paper in a peer-reviewed journal.

Past funding to UTPA from the HHMI has supported research experiences for undergraduate students as well as for many students in Rio Grande Valley K-12 schools through the Regional Biotech Mobile Laboratory.
"Their diploma will reflect the degree in their field of science or math with a distinction in research," Trant said. "We want to really enrich those students" experience so when they go to get their master's or Ph.D. they've already had two years of research; they know how to keep their notebook, they know how to present the data, they know how to go to a national conference and present a poster or oral presentation. They will have gone through as much as anyone does to get a master's."

The HHMI project will also include the development of new scientific curricula that prepares more students for science research careers. Two new multi-disciplinary courses will introduce students to cutting-edge biomedical research laboratory techniques. Other required courses will include statistics, biomedical and professional ethics, critical thinking and leadership. Labs will also be restructured to problem based/applied science formats and an advanced biochemistry laboratory will be created. The result, Trant said, is that more students will be exposed to inquiry based science and the joys of discovery.

UTPA also will expand and continue outreach programs with local school districts to encourage more students to pursue careers in science.

A summer leadership training for high school students will be enhanced and the mobile laboratory will include more scientific disciplines, impact more area schools and provide teacher training to utilize the lab. An innovative and more effective assessment tool to track program and student success will also be implemented.

"My mantra is get them (students) early, get them often and get them engaged," Trant said. "We cannot sit here in an ivory tower and say bring us your brightest and we will make them incrementally brighter. We need to have our hands in the community working side by side with them."

The HHMI grant complements many of the current grant funded and other initiatives going on at the University directed at STEM education, Trant said. They include the creation of a Center of Excellence for STEM Education funded by a $3.7 million Department of Defense grant where students can learn about STEM degrees and careers and educators can test the latest pedagogical tools like 3-D projectors and smart boards; implementation of UTeach and scholarship programs to improve the preparation of secondary school teachers in the sciences; expanded use of the onsite and traveling planetariums, which are generating 65,000 visitors a year; and development of a plan funded by The University of Texas System Board of Regents that addresses the production of better physicians in a more innovative and timely manner.

Additionally, last year the Texas Legislature appropriated $30 million to UTPA and other Valley higher education institutions to increase biomedical science research, STEM education and recruitment of additional STEM faculty.

Trant is excited about the additional impact UTPA's HHMI program will have on the success of students and the institution, region and nation.

"We are using the research and we are using the classroom to make learning fun, accidental and much deeper than what we can get with lectures," he said. "I want this to be a college of excellence in research and innovative education and the HHMI beautifully blends the two."

Since 1988, HHMI, a 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 HHMI's longest running science education program.