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St. Olaf receives $1 million science education grant

By Kari VanDerVeen
May 24, 2012

Students interested in becoming a science teacher will soon find a wealth of new resources at St. Olaf College, from a faculty mentor focused on science education to more hands-on teaching and research opportunities.

It's all part of a $1 million grant the college recently received from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). In addition to enabling St. Olaf to provide greater support for students interested in teaching science at both the K-12 and college levels, the four-year grant will also be used to incorporate science into a wider array of disciplines across campus.

"This is a great opportunity to focus on how science intersects with teaching and other disciplines," says Associate Dean for Natural Sciences and Mathematics Matt Richey, right, with Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Charles Umbanhowar Jr. 

"This is a great opportunity to focus on how science intersects with teaching and other disciplines," says St. Olaf Associate Dean for Natural Sciences and Mathematics Matt Richey.

The funding is part of HHMI's new Science Education Initiative. The institute selected 47 colleges and universities across the nation to receive grants totalling more than $50 million that will be used to create more engaging science classes, bring real-world research experiences to students, and increase the diversity of students who study science. The initiative also aims to foster long-term collaboration among the schools receiving the grants.

"HHMI is investing in these schools because they have shown they are superb incubators of new ideas and models that might be replicated by other institutions to improve how science is taught in college," says Sean B. Carroll, vice president of science education at HHMI. "We know that these schools have engaged faculty. They care deeply about teaching and how effectively their students are learning about science."

Increased resources and support
At St. Olaf, part of the grant will be used to hire a new faculty member who holds a doctorate in a science discipline and also has recent experience teaching at the high school level. That faculty member, who will likely have a shared appointment between the Education Department and the Natural Sciences and Mathematics faculty, will play a key role in mentoring students who are interested in becoming teachers.

To provide additional support, the grant will also enable the college to hire two visiting master teachers — experienced high school science or mathematics teachers who will spend a year at St. Olaf teaching half-time.

Students interested in becoming educators will also have increased opportunities to teach and perform research during both the academic year and the summer through a new peer teaching program. They will be trained to become teaching assistants in courses on campus and will be encouraged to gain hands-on experience in research labs. 

"We see this as critically important because there is an increasing emphasis in science education on having students actually do their own research projects and answer open-ended questions through investigation. And what we know is that educators who have done their own research and understand the processes involved have a much greater ability to lead their students through those projects," says Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Charles Umbanhowar Jr., the project director for the new HHMI-supported initiative at St. Olaf.

Integrating science into other disciplines
The grant will also support efforts to incorporate science into other disciplines on campus. One way that will be achieved is having science and mathematics faculty involved in the first-year writing course on campus. Their input in developing course topics and structures will help bring science to a much broader group of students, Richey says.

Another part of the initiative will be the development of a new general education course that will examine the intersection of science and society. The course will target junior and senior non-science majors, and it will emphasize the role that science plays in other areas of public discourse.

"It will be designed for students who have taken a number of courses in their own discipline, and it will look at a large issue — like water, for instance — and how science intersects with other disciplines like economics," Umbanhowar says.

The grant will also provide funding to expand St. Olaf's long-standing Summer Bridge program, a for-credit summer session that has to this point focused on providing incoming students with the skills needed for college academics. Bridge I will have two tracks: one with a focus on potential science majors and the other with a more general focus. Bridge II will target rising sophomores and will focus on the more advanced skills needed in science and mathematics.

All of these initiatives will combine to support an overarching goal of better integrating science into other disciplines and programs on campus. "But I certainly hope that we also double or even triple the number of students who are leaving the college with the idea of becoming teachers," Umbanhowar says.

Four other Minnesota colleges also received grants through the HHMI’s Science Education Initiative: Carleton College, Macalester College, Hamline University, and the University of Minnesota-Morris.

Since 1988, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has awarded more than $870 million to 274 colleges and universities to support science education.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or