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$1.2-Million Howard Hughes Grant Helps MHC Sciences

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October 22, 2004

$1.2-Million Howard Hughes Grant Helps MHC Sciences

Photo by: Todd M. LeMieux

Sean Decatur (left) and Craig Woodard

Mount Holyoke science faculty are already hard at work on projects funded by a $1.2-million grant awarded to the College last May by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). Chemistry professor Sean Decatur and Craig Woodard, associate professor of biological sciences, are codirectors of the four-year grant, one of the largest in the College’s history. The grant provides funding in four areas.

The largest portion of the grant is earmarked for student summer research projects. These projects, designed by faculty with rising seniors, are based on the highly successful Cascade Mentoring Program, which pairs the rising senior with a rising sophomore to work under the supervision of a professor.

“The opportunity to conduct cutting-edge research is necessary to gain admission to graduate or medical school,” Woodard said. “And the mentoring experience helps the more advanced student to more fully understand her research because she has to communicate it.”

Woodard noted that the summer research program is one of the few such opportunities available to rising sophomores. “These students get to pursue scientific research and find out if it’s the direction they want to follow. In many cases, it’s easier for a student to learn from another student than from a professor. That’s why the mentoring system works so well.”

The HHMI grant is also funding a comprehensive revision and synchronization of the basic biology and chemistry curricula. Decatur explained that as the boundaries between biology and chemistry increasingly overlap, students must “understand the way that biology informs and drives chemistry, and the way that chemistry informs and drives biology.” He pointed out that three-quarters of students who take first- and second-year biology also take chemistry. “We want to take advantage of that synergy,” Decatur said. “We want biology students to take chemistry not only because they have to, but so they can see how the sciences fit together.”

The third component of the grant provides funding to develop experiments for introductory courses involving advanced laboratory equipment. This will not only expose students to important concepts earlier in their scientific education but will also reinforce the natural connections between chemistry and biology. The grant will permit the College to hire part-time technical staff in both chemistry and biology to aid in incorporating this advanced instrumentation in introductory courses. Much of this work is done by professors, who will now have more time to help students doing research.

Finally, the grant supports SummerMath for Teachers, a significant outreach program for precollege teachers, now in its twenty-second year. The HHMI grant is being used to create a professional development program for K-8 teachers, similar to the program for teachers of grades 7-12 established under a previous HHMI grant. Like the earlier program, the K-8 program will promote inquiry-based learning, showing teachers how to implement lessons that encourage students to approach math problems much as they would science experiments: establishing hypotheses, designing and testing possible solutions, and deriving conclusions based on their own investigation.

“Too often mathematics and science have been taught as single subjects divorced from each other,” said Virginia Bastable, director of the SummerMath for Teachers program. “If teachers take on an inquiry approach to their instruction and encourage students to pursue their own questions and ideas, mathematics and science can be blended together and students can come to see both as tools for making sense of their world.”

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Copyright © 2004 Mount Holyoke College. This document has been improperly attributed. Last modified on October 21, 2004.

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