Research for Undergrads, 'Early and Often'

October 3, 2007

Improving science education is a goal that has bred a lot of different approaches, many of them cooked up at different colleges or by officials in the federal government's funding agencies.

What if a major entity tried, instead, to influence the science education curriculum nationally?

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a nonprofit organization that funds biomedical research and initiatives to boost science teaching, is taking a step in that direction by introducing a national genomics course directed toward freshmen. In essence, the institute would set up a network of colleges and universities that teach from a centralized set of materials with a common goal: to encourage students to pursue research as early as possible, to immerse them in the tools of basic scientific inquiry and to allow collaborations between the network's members.

Until now, calls for action to bolster Americans' science aptitude and increase the number of graduates who move on to scientific research have focused on nurturing individual students, improving teacher education and collaborating with industry, among other approaches. The Hughes initiative, called the Science Education Alliance, is a more coordinated effort aimed at piquing the interest of students who might not otherwise consider science as a career, inculcating skills that can later benefit even those who don't and supporting a network of institutions that could eventually help professors improve their methods of teaching.

"If there’s one thing that’s emerging from all the work that we do," said Daryl E. Chubin, director of the Center for Advancing Science and Engineering Capacity at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, it's that "an undergraduate research experience is the way to hook students into thinking about science as a career."

Part of the idea is to place students' research experiences as early as possible in their academic careers, in some cases before they even declare a major. While it is widely accepted that such experiences improve students' likelihood of pursuing science, the Hughes program's emphasis on an "earlier the better" approach is unconventional.

"You have to sort of think of undergraduate research the same way you think about voting in Chicago -- early and often,” said Peter J. Bruns, the institute's vice president for grants and science education.

But finding researchers willing to work regularly with undergraduates in the laboratory could be a problem, Chubin suggested. "The biggest hurdle here is getting faculty to entertain the possibility of having an undergraduate join their team," he said. Some scientists tend to believe -- often based on perception rather than experience -- that such students aren't serious enough about scholarship to be anything but an impediment. But after a year in the lab, Chubin says, undergraduates are often "virtually indistinguishable from the graduate students."

While there is “clearly self-selection going on here ... the approach seems sound,” Chubin said.

The course is really a framework, said Tuajuanda C. Jordan, director of the alliance. The Hughes institute will train faculty, provide tools and support, and prepare a resource guide, allowing professors to tailor the content to their own approach. The two-semester, year-long program would ideally be integrated into an introductory biology course, she said.

Added Jordan: "We are hopeful that the experience is such that some of those kids will realize that science really is a viable option for them."

Beginning with a pilot at the University of Pittsburgh, where the biologist Graham F. Hatfull first pioneered the approach, the course focuses on genomics, and the isolation of tiny viruses called bacteriophages. The topic wasn't chosen randomly; the organisms were chosen for the vast number of undiscovered varieties and the relative ease of isolating them.

"There’s a very high probability that by the end of the first year as a freshman, [students will have] identified a bunch of genes that have never been discovered before," Bruns remarked. "That’s not bad for a freshman. And I think that’ll be a bit of a hook."

And once students have been involved in the research, both learning its methods and pioneering discoveries of their own, they can connect with students and researchers at other institutions in the alliance to collaborate and gain feedback. But not just the students: Part of the plan is for educators to improve their own methods of teaching undergraduates in the process.

"Where else can faculty from a variety of different schools work together [to create a course,] share the material, and everybody gain from it?" said Bruns.

While the initial launch is limited to the class at Pittsburgh, the alliance plans to add 12 institutions per year with a goal of 36 -- or over 700 students nationwide -- by 2011.

And until then, educators at the Hughes institute will commute back and forth between its headquarters in Chevy Chase, Md., and Pittsburgh to
do some field research of their own and determine "exactly what’s needed for the whole network," Bruns explained. Eventually, the alliance's organizers hope there will be enough colleges involved that the idea will catch on elsewhere, and possibly with other course curricula.

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