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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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$1.5 million HHMI grant will enhance NMSU science education programs

A $1.5 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) will enable New Mexico State University to expand research opportunities for undergraduate science majors, revamp its introductory biology courses and reach out to public schools in New Mexico with new programs to improve the teaching of science.

l have a program in place this fall that will not be replicated anywhere else in the state," said Daniel J. Howard, head of the NMSU Department of Biology and director of the HHMI-funded program.

New Mexico State is one of 50 research universities receiving a total of $86.4 million from HHMI for innovative science education programs. The institute invited 214 universities to compete for undergraduate science education grants and 158 submitted proposals.

Howard said nearly half of the New Mexico State grant will be used to create an Undergraduate Research Scholars Program that will enroll 54 students a year, including Native American transfer students from New Mexico tribal and community colleges. Freshman through senior students will participate in the program, working on individual research projects and producing an honors thesis on their research during their senior year. Students will receive monetary stipends for their research work.

"New Mexico State has long had a reputation for offering undergraduates the opportunity to work in research laboratories, but it can be difficult to find enough money for students who need to work and earn money," Howard said. "This grant gives us additional resources to pay students to work on research projects."

More important, he said, the HHMI-funded program will create "a community of scholars" that will engage the students in seminars and more interaction with faculty members. "We want the students to feel they are a part of the research enterprise, not just workers in a laboratory," he said.

The transformation of the university's introductory biology sequence, which will be organized during the fall semester and implemented in the spring of 2007, is meant to make these courses less passive and more dynamic, emphasizing core concepts and critical thinking skills.

"To help students learn to learn, we plan to spend less time lecturing and more time helping students work in cooperative groups led by peer leaders," said Ralph Preszler, an assistant professor of biology who helped write the grant proposal. "Peer leaders are undergraduates who have successfully completed the course and who are interested in helping our freshman students."

The grant also will support academic programs and outreach activities aimed at improving the teaching of science in public schools, especially in grades K-8. The NMSU College of Arts and Sciences and the NMSU College of Education are collaborating to offer a Master of Arts in Teaching Science degree with classes beginning this fall.

To help New Mexico teachers keep up with rapid advances in the sciences and with new laboratory methods, the university will use HHMI funds to sponsor two-day refresher courses each summer in astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology and physics.

"The grant from Howard Hughes Medical Institute is a feather in the hat for NMSU," said Dean of Arts and Sciences Waded Cruzado-Salas. "Only 50 institutions of higher education in the U.S. have received this prestigious award. We are convinced that now we are playing in a different league - in years to come, the HMMI grant will be marked as a transformative agent and a catalyst of student success at NMSU."

Recipients of the HHMI undergraduate science education awards include Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Duke, Cornell, Emory and other elite universities.

HHMI reviewers said NMSU's "outstanding proposal focuses on bringing undergraduate minority students into research and providing high-quality hands-on science education to undergraduates, future K-8 teachers and high school students."

"The university directs a significant number of programs targeted for disadvantaged students, both Hispanic and Native American," the reviewers noted. "The success of these programs in retaining science students to graduation and their entry into graduate and professional degree programs is impressive."

June 1, 2006
Karl Hill