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Breaking new ground in biology education

Grants totaling more than $3 million will support innovative student research and retention efforts within new department.

Two new grants totaling more than $3 million over five years will fund student research and retention initiatives integral to the mission of the new, first-of-its-kind Department of Biology Teaching and Learning (BTL). The grants — $1.9 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and $1.2 million from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) — will fund a new program designed to provide undergraduates with unprecedented opportunities to do original research and support efforts to develop an integrated, technology-driven approach to supporting student retention. The department, which launched this summer, will serve as a nexus for evidence-based teaching, research on effective pedagogies, and public engagement in biology at the U of M.

The NSF award will make it possible for the college to provide hands-on research experiences to about 13,000 majors and non-majors over the grant period through a new program called Integrated Science Education for Discovery in Introductory Biology (InSciED-In), modeled on and in partnership with the Mayo Clinic’s Integrated Science Education Outreach (InSciEd Out) program. Piloted in schools in Rochester and St. Paul, MN, InSciEd Out engages middle-school students in the scientific process by inviting them to ask original questions and come up with hypotheses. InSciED-In will provide a framework for undergraduates to work with faculty and post-doc researcher mentors to develop and investigate their own research questions.

“It’s actually rather unusual for students to think up their own question and hypothesis,” says Robin Wright, the principle investigator for both grants, head of the new department and senior associate dean for undergraduate initiatives. “The idea is that we will have faculty sponsors who will work with post-docs to select and mentor teams of undergraduate researchers. The postdocs will mentor undergraduate team leaders who, in turn, will help teams of four to five undergraduates develop and pursue original research questions.”

The HHMI award for $1.2 million, announced in May, will support an effort to integrate academic and advising systems. “The grant will support our efforts to use technology to provide ongoing feedback that lets students know how they are doing academically in as close to a real-time basis as we can,” says Wright.

According to HHMI, approximately 60 percent of students who enter college with the intention of majoring in a STEM field fail to earn a STEM degree. Wright and colleagues are designing the new integrated system with an eye to boosting student retention by making it easier for both students and advisors to track progress. “The system will alert advisors and other people who have a role in student success at multiple points so that they can intervene and get help for students who may be struggling.”

– Stephanie Xenos