$1.5 million grant will help UH re-think ‘gateway’ math, science classes

Stefanie Botelho's picture
Monday, June 2, 2014

The University of Houston has received a $1.5 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to help solve a national shortage in the number of Americans with college degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The money is to be used to find new ways to encourage students who enroll in classes such as chemistry, biology, physics and math during their freshman year or after transferring from a community college to stay the course, despite the difficulty many may encounter.

The University will redesign these introductory courses and expand mentoring programs, said Bonnie J. Dunbar, director of the UH STEM Center.

UH was among 37 research universities to receive the grants, which will total $60 million over five years.

“We are not changing the standards and content,” said Dunbar, who is also director of the University’s aerospace engineering program and a former member of the U.S. astronaut corps. “We are changing the way we present the material, to more proactively engage the students in learning through hands-on projects, and to provide academic assistance when students arrive not fully prepared from high school or community college.

“How do we keep these freshmen students in gateway courses, to help them connect the dots to rewarding, productive and creative STEM professions after graduation?”

The shortage of professionals trained in science, engineering and other technical fields is a national problem, and one explanation was identified in the 2012 report from the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology – fewer than 40 percent of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM discipline complete a STEM degree. Only about 20 percent of students from underrepresented ethnic groups persist in STEM fields, increasing the challenge in light of the nation’s changing demographics.

The report concludes that about half of students would have to major in a STEM field – and complete their degrees – to meet the country’s workforce needs over the next decade.

Dan E. Wells, interim dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and co-investigator on the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) grant, said the work will build on previous efforts in the college.

“For the last two years, we ran an extremely successful pilot program with the entry-level biology courses,” he said. “This grant will allow us to expand the program to entry-level physics, chemistry and mathematics courses.”

HHMI invited 203 research universities to apply for the grants, challenging them to submit proposals to meet three broad challenges: improve how science is taught, provide early opportunities for students to engage in research and encourage all students to persist in science. The institute, based in Chevy Chase, Md., also has funded several other initiatives to improve science education.

In addition to Wells, co-investigators on the project include James Briggs, interim chairman of the Department of Biology and Biochemistry; Jacqueline Hawkins, associate professor of education; David Hoffman, chairman of the Department of Chemistry, and Jeffrey Morgan, associate provost for education innovation and technology.