Swarthmore Receives $1 Million HHMI Grant Supporting Science Education

by Susan Clarey
Swarthmore Receives $1 Million HHMI Grant for Science Education

Swarthmore College has been selected to receive a four-year,  $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to support undergraduate science education, create more engaging science classes, bring real-world research experiences to students, and increase diversity among students who study science.

Swarthmore was among 47 small colleges and universities in the United States to receive competitive grants from HHMI's Precollege and Undergraduate Science Education Program. A total of 187 primarily undergraduate institutions applied.

"HHMI is investing in these schools because they have shown that they are superb incubators of news ideas and models that might be replicated by other institutions to improve how science is taught in college," says Sean 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."

Swarthmore President Rebecca Chopp calls the grant "a catalyst for innovation in undergraduate science education."  Although the College has long been recognized for the strength of its science programs, she says, "support from HHMI will allow us to take science teaching and learning to an even higher level. We are excited at the prospect of introducing initiatives that will further encourage students from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences to study science."

Swarthmore's new HHMI grant was further distinguished as one of 11 special Capstone Awards made to long-time recipients of HHMI funding. These schools, collectively among the best in the country at producing graduates who go on to science careers, will assess and share which elements of their various approaches to science education have been successful and why.

"There is an enormous trove of know-how and wisdom at these schools, and we would like to see how that information can be shared more broadly," says David Asai, director of HHMI's Precollege and Undergraduate Science Education Program. Their experiences, he said, will enable the Capstone Awardees to provide leadership to other grantee institutions.

science for kidsThe HHMI grant will support a variety of cutting-edge initiatives in science education at Swarthmore, including student summer research fellowships and a series of HHMI mentoring mini grants. Both initiatives are aimed at students from low income, first generation, and underrepresented minority groups who strive to succeed as majors in the natural sciences and engineering.

The grant will also support curricular innovations, including an overhaul of the introductory biology curriculum to make it more student-centered and responsive to the needs of students with varying degrees of high school preparation. At the same time, the grant will foster further development of the College's successful Science for Kids summer outreach program (pictured), which engages members of the Chester Children's Chorus in hands-on science activities and hones teaching skills among undergraduate teaching assistants.

"Swarthmore's six grants from HHMI since 1988 have allowed hundreds of our students to have significant summer research experiences. This has been a major factor in promoting the growth of the active research community that we see in our natural sciences and engineering division today," says Professor of Biology Kathleen Siwicki, who has been program director for the College's HHMI grants since 2003. Siwicki is joined by Howard Hughes Coordinator Julie MacMullan, whose adminstrative support is described as "the glue that holds programs together."

"The overarching goal of our new HHMI grant is to prepare students, from all backgrounds, to become leaders in a more diverse scientific community," Siwicki explains. "In addition to summer research fellowships, this grant will support more creative mentoring activities to help our students persist in their aspirations to become scientists, and it will support several faculty teams to develop new courses that engage students in active learning and interdisciplinary thinking."

 

By awarding this grant, Siwicki says, "HHMI is not only recognizing Swarthmore's strong record of success in producing leaders in science and engineering, but also is challenging us to expand that success to a broader base of our students. I think these aims resonate with HHMI, with our NSE faculty, and with the mission of the College."