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$2M Hughes Grant to Hook Undergraduates on Science

Northwestern transforming way undergraduates will learn biological science

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May 20, 2010 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Thanks to a $2 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), Northwestern University is transforming the way its undergraduates will learn biological science.

Central to the transformation, the NU Bioscientist Program will offer two courses that will immerse freshmen in scientific inquiry and get them in the lab early.

"The trick is to start early with the sciences," said Linda Hicke, associate vice president for research and professor of biochemistry, molecular biology & cell biology at Northwestern. "Students who enter a lab as freshmen or sophomores are much more likely to have a successful laboratory experience while they are at Northwestern."

Through the HHMI support, Northwestern also is fundamentally changing the way its large introductory biology course will be taught; creating a summer bridge program for entering freshmen from groups traditionally underrepresented in the field; and building a supportive network of biomedical mentors.

Immersing freshmen in scientific methods, with innovative coursework and mentoring, to prepare them for independent lab work could make a big difference in students' futures, Hicke said.

The training could make the freshmen much more competitive for research funding early rather than later in their undergraduate studies and influence a passion for science that extends to academic and professional careers.

The new freshmen courses will prepare 30 talented students for independent laboratory research during the following summer. Students will then get funding to work with a Northwestern faculty mentor during the summer. Those who flourish will have the opportunity spend up to three years working in the laboratory of their choosing.

The NU Bioscientist Program represents collaboration between Northwestern's Program in Biological Sciences, the Searle Center for Teaching Excellence, the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Feinberg School of Medicine.

The large introductory course for all bioscience majors and premedical students will have a greater focus on interactive learning, integrate across disciplines and focus on analytical reasoning and deep learning. 

"The idea is for students to experience how knowledge is created," Hicke said, "instead of being passive absorbers of information."

The summer "BioEXCEL" program for entering freshmen from groups traditionally underrepresented in the bioscience field will include intensive preparation in calculus and chemistry, courses in leadership and current topics in biomedical research and community-building activities in the Chicago area.

Mentorships developed during the summer will be a source of support through later years at the University. "It's a jump-start program for students who come from high schools lacking the resources to provide intensive, advanced-level science classes," Hicke said.

A supportive community of biomedical scientists will be key to all the biological science efforts at Northwestern. Training will be provided to a network of mentors who are passionate about the scientific process and effective at communicating it to others.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a nonprofit medical research organization, awarded a total of $70 million to 50 research universities to help strengthen undergraduate and precollege science education nationwide. The resources are intended to allow faculty to pursue creative ideas that teach and inspire students about science and research.

"By selecting these 50 grantees, we highlight areas and approaches that we think are particularly powerful," said David Asai, director of HHMI's precollege and undergraduate programs. "We hope that universities across the country -- even those that are not HHMI grantees -- will turn to these programs when they think about improving science education."