Princeton awarded $1.5 million for biology education

Princeton has been awarded $1.5 million from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to help support the University's efforts to improve education in the biological sciences. The grant will support an annual two-week workshop for high school science teachers and a large summer research program for college students.

Awarded competitively every four years to dozens of research universities, HHMI's grants are made through its Precollege and Undergraduate Science Education Program and the HHMI Professors Program, two complementary initiatives aimed at expanding science education in the United States. Princeton is one of a handful of universities that have been funded continually since the grants were first offered, in 1989.

Fred Hughson, director of Princeton's HHMI Undergraduate Research Education Program, said the award will help the University to expand its efforts to improve biology education in high schools and colleges nationwide.

"The unifying theme here is that the best way to get people excited about science is to give them a chance to do science," said Hughson, professor of molecular biology. "We do that for college students by having them come and spend the summer doing research, and we do it for high school students by providing the training and equipment that allows science teachers to conduct cutting-edge experiments in their classrooms."

For high school science teachers, the University hosts a two-week summer workshop designed to help them remain current on the latest scientific discoveries while also refining their teaching techniques. More than 500 teachers have participated in the workshop since its inception in 1990 and have gone on to influence hundreds of thousands of high school students.

During their two weeks at Princeton, teachers work in the laboratory each day, learning techniques and conducting a series of experiments that they can then bring back to their own classrooms in the fall. They also convene for daily lunchtime discussions with Princeton faculty members and devote time to planning curricula and designing or refining teaching units.

For teachers unable to attend the two-week workshop, the HHMI grant has allowed the University to establish eight satellite learning centers, which have become regional learning communities for sharing successful teaching ideas year-round.

The grant also enables Princeton to loan specialized equipment -- such as PCR thermocyclers and gel electrophoresis kits, both used to study DNA -- and chemicals that teachers can use in experiments when they return to their classrooms.

In assessing the long-term effectiveness of the initiative, Princeton's HHMI program conducts a comprehensive survey every four years of all program alumni, Hughson said. In the 2009 survey, 74 percent of respondents reported having used HHMI-Princeton training and support to add a new module to an existing course, while 20 percent reported having developed an entirely new course.

Many teachers reported using the training they received at Princeton to obtain additional support, either from their schools or through successful grant applications. For example, 63 percent said their schools purchased new equipment that allowed them to introduce to their classrooms experiments derived from their Princeton experiences.

The HHMI grant also will enable the University to continue hosting a nine-week summer research program for students selected from a nationwide pool of undergraduates attending small colleges with limited research resources. Participating students are immersed in close collaboration with Princeton undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty, gaining cutting-edge research experience designed to help them shape decisions about their futures in the sciences. According to survey data, 79 percent of the program's alumni have gone on to pursue higher degrees, and 96 percent of those degrees were in the biomedical sciences.

"Our goal is to give students and high school teachers direct experience with scientific research and discovery," Hughson said. "I don’t know of a better way to hook them."