$1.5 million grant to change way many non-science students are taught at the UO

EUGENE, Ore. -- (May 20, 2010) -- Non-science majors at the University of Oregon in the future will benefit from a $1.5 million grant that will have four departments working together to change the way they teach their courses. The grant to the UO was among $79 million in grants announced by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to help universities strengthen undergraduate and precollege science education nationwide.

The UO's new Science Literacy Program will require some planning this summer before beginning in September, when the grant begins, said Judith Eisen, professor of biology, and Michael Raymer, professor of physics, who will lead the effort. Faculty in biology, chemistry, geological sciences and physics are expected to participate.

The resources provided by HHMI are designed to let faculty at research universities develop creative, new methods to teach and inspire students about science and research. The HHMI awards come from its Precollege and Undergraduate Science Education Program and the HHMI Professors Program -- two complementary initiatives that are transforming science education in the United States.

The UO proposal was among 50 chosen from 165 applications gathered in 2009 for advancing science education for students in kindergarten through college undergraduate years. A panel of distinguished scientists and science educators reviewed the proposals, which resulted in $70 million in fund nationally.

Students taking typical college science courses listen to lectures, take notes, read textbooks and occasionally get to ask questions, Eisen said. In a large introductory science class, any in-depth discussion waits for a recitation section or tutorial led by a teaching assistant later in the week. Many courses are run this way simply because that’s how it’s always been done, she added.

“People who teach science at the college level don’t typically receive a lot of training in pedagogy, so they teach as their professors taught,” said Eisen, who is the program's director. “A lot of it -- especially the lecture part -- was not very interactive, and it’s sort of a passive learning experience.”

The UO's Science Literacy Program will train faculty in teaching strategies that are known to be effective and will encourage them to share that knowledge with their colleagues on campus. Selected undergraduate and graduate science students will act as fellows, learn the innovative teaching methods and help professors plan and teach the courses.

"The unique aspect of our HHMI program is to engage undergraduate science majors in teaching the nonscience-majors' courses," Raymer said. "These advanced undergraduates have the outlook on science that we want to model for the non-science students. They, being close in age to the students taking the 100-level courses, can illustrate the excitement that comes with scientific discovery. Furthermore, by involving the science majors in co-teaching courses, the program will help inspire a new generation of science teachers and public communicators."

New courses will span departments and incorporate more interactive, inquiry-based learning techniques. For example, faculty from physics, biology, and geological sciences will collaborate to teach a course called “Scientific Revolutions—Major Advances That Altered Our Understanding of the World.” Through interdisciplinary courses, the program aims to improve the scientific literacy of all students, giving them the tools to make decisions in their daily lives that involve science, health, and technology, Eisen says.

The remaining $9 million awarded by HHMI went to 13 HHMI professors at 11 U.S. institutions to allow each to address problems facing science education over the next four years.