PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Brown University has won a $1.5-million, five-year grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to strengthen undergraduate teaching so that more students stick with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) concentrations.
“It’s a broad program that goes beyond any one department,” said Mark Johnson, associate professor of biology, who led the proposal with David Targan, director of the Science Center, and Kathy Takayama, director of the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning.
The grant will support several innovative, research-supported practices in key introductory — “gateway” — classes of calculus, physics, chemistry, biology, and biochemistry.
New ideas, classes, and resources
A main thrust of the new initiative is to increase the role of collaborative, small-group research and learning experiences in classes, Johnson said.
“The education literature suggests that students who work in collaborative groups perform much better in these types of courses,” Johnson said. Some do so of their own accord, he said, but “what we’re trying to do is formalize that a bit so that all students will participate in study groups.”
The emphasis on group learning and collaborative research will be infused into courses such as introductory calculus, Physics 30-40, the Plant Organism, Genetics, a new lab component of Introductory Biochemistry, and Chemistry 340, an entirely new class to help bridge Chemistry 330 with Organic Chemistry. In total, these classes serve more than a thousand students every year.
Several curricular innovations will also be designed to make clear, hands-on connections among the sciences and math that students must learn as they start out in STEM concentrations. Calculus faculty members, for example, will collaborate with science professors to integrate more problems from their disciplines into the course. In Physics 30-40, which serves STEM students headed into the life sciences, new small-group lab exercises will be based in neuroscience and physiology.
In several of the gateway courses, the Sheridan Center will also expand training of teaching assistants and produce online and digital instruction modules, such as videos, that students can use as background for labs and classes.
For example, in the Genetics class, the videos will help provide students with tutorials on the math they’ll encounter week by week in the class, such as probability and statistics, so that they are better prepared to handle the problem sets they’ll face.
Targan said all the new changes under the grant could potentially benefit all STEM students, but are likely to be especially helpful for the students who have often been most at risk for leaving STEM concentrations, including underrepresented minorities.
Part of a broader strategy
HHMI selected Brown and 36 other universities from among 170 institutions that applied for the awards. Last year, Brown won a similarly competitive grant from Association of American Universities. That award has been helping Brown develop teaching programs to bolster mathematical literacy among STEM students.
With HHMI’s support the University also has developed the New Scientist Program to provide pre-college and early college STEM teaching and research for students from underrepresented groups.
With these programs in place to build and sustain collaborative learning environments, a new idea to “living-learning” residential communities in freshman dorms is also taking shape, Targan said. With support from trained “near-peer” mentors, these students will be able to form communities of shared interest in STEM that extend beyond the classroom.
Brown’s overall commitment to improving STEM education is an explicit goal of the University’s strategic plan, Building on Distinction.
“We are thrilled that this award will contribute significantly toward a key element in Brown’s strategic plan to enhance the STEM curriculum through integrated, problem-based learning,” Takayama said. “The HHMI award will significantly enhance our efforts to transform STEM education across the University through a collaborative, integrated approach that is reflective of our strong culture of teaching and research excellence.”