• The HHMI grant will be used to implement a new "inquiry-based" science curriculum at Southwestern over the next four years. Some departments, such as Chemistry, have already been involving their students in inquiry-based learning. Chemistry students regularly develop inquiry-based experiments to share with students at local elementary schools.
  • Mark Bottorff, associate professor of physics, has already developed an "inquiry-based" curriculum for teaching astronomy. (Photo by Lucas Adams)
  • The HHMI grant will enable Southwestern to double the number of faculty-student research projects it can fund in the summer. Shown here are students and faculty members doing collaborative chemistry research this summer through a program funded by The Welch Foundation of Houston.

Southwestern University is one of 47 colleges selected to participate in a $50 million science education initiative sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

The new initiative is designed to help schools create more engaging science classes, bring real-world research experiences to students, and increase the diversity of students who study science.  

Southwestern will receive $1.3 million from HHMI to transform its undergraduate science education program over the next four years. The money will be used to implement an “inquiry-based” curriculum across all departments in its Natural Sciences Division – Animal Behavior, Biology, Chemistry and Biochemistry, Kinesiology, Mathematics and Computer Science, and Physics.  

“Inquiry-based learning can be defined in many ways, but in general it involves a more hands-on approach in which students actively engage in the scientific process rather than learning through instructor-transmitted information,” said Emily Niemeyer, a chemistry professor who chaired the HHMI proposal planning committee, helped write the grant submission, and will serve as a co-director for the new program.“Inquiry-based learning has been shown to enhance critical thinking and problem-solving skills and to help with student retention and enthusiasm for science.”  

The other co-director for the program will be Maha Zewail-Foote, associate professor of chemistry and chair of the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department.  

Some science departments at Southwestern have already been moving toward more inquiry-based courses. Mark Bottorff, associate professor of physics, previously received a grant from the Associated Colleges of the South to develop a new inquiry-based curriculum for teaching astronomy and for the past two years students in General Chemistry developed inquiry-based experiments to share with students at local elementary schools.  

Southwestern plans to gradually transform all its natural science courses, beginning with introductory classes. Funds from the HHMI grant will be used to help faculty learn how to implement the new inquiry-based curriculum and to purchase supplies that will support inquiry-based laboratories in all departments.  

Niemeyer said particular attention will be paid to overhauling the curriculum in organic chemistry, which is one of the most important “gateway courses” in the sciences.  

“At Southwestern and other schools, organic chemistry has the reputation of ‘weeding out’ the ranks of potential science majors,” Niemeyer said, noting that the typical attrition rate at most schools is 30 to 50 percent over the two-semester course.  

The HHMI grant will be used to hire a full-time lab instructor with a Ph.D. in organic chemistry to completely revamp the laboratory portion of the class and offer continuity for the course. It also will fund peer mentors who will provide tutoring to students taking organic chemistry, giving a new support structure to help ensure student success in the class.  

Southwestern also will use the grant money to double the amount of student-faculty collaborative research projects it funds in the summer. Currently, Southwestern has a chemistry summer research program sponsored by the Welch Foundation of Houston and an institutionally funded Faculty-Student Projects program that supports collaborative research in the natural sciences and throughout the university. With HHMI funding, student-faculty collaborative research in biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, computer science and animal behavior will be consolidated into a single interdisciplinary program called the Southwestern Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE).  

HHMI support will allow an additional 68 Southwestern students to take part in research projects with faculty members over the four-year course of the grant. One-third of the places in the summer research program will be reserved for students from groups who are underrepresented in the sciences and Martín Gonzalez, an associate professor of biology, will serve as an HHMI faculty mentor and will offer a one-credit course in which SURE students will talk about current topics in science and learn more about careers in the sciences, preparation for graduate school, scientific presentations and study abroad opportunities.  

Faculty members in Southwestern’s Natural Sciences Division began meeting in 2008 to discuss how science education at Southwestern could be transformed in the coming decades. As part of this discussion, they also began making plans to renovate and expand Southwestern’s existing science building. Fundraising for this project is currently under way and just this month Southwestern received a $1 million gift from The Brown Foundation, Inc. of Houston for the project, bringing the total raised to date to $5.6 million. The new building will bring all departments in the division – which are currently spread out among three buildings – into one facility.

Every four years, HHMI invites a limited number of colleges to submit proposals for programs that will improve science education. Colleges are invited to participate in the competition based on their record of postbaccalaureate student achievement in the sciences and their record of preparing students from groups underrepresented in the sciences to pursue scientific careers.  

Southwestern was one of 215 schools invited to participate in the 2012 competition, which ended up funding 43 proposals involving 47 schools.

“Southwestern has a strong history of providing an exemplary, rigorous undergraduate education in the sciences and producing students who are exceptionally well prepared,” Zewail-Foote said. “We are delighted that HHMI recognizes our tradition of excellence and our vision for the future.”