CORVALLIS - A $1.8 million grant to Oregon State University to be announced Wednesday by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute will improve statewide biology and science education for Oregon students from kindergarten through college, educators say.
During the next four years, the funds will help middle school minority students develop an interest and eventual career in science, high school students to do original biological research and environmental data gathering, and even liberal arts majors in college to conduct hands-on DNA analysis.
"This grant will be very important to OSU and help us provide educational opportunities that otherwise would be impossible," said Christopher Mathews, distinguished professor and chair of the OSU Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics. "We can build on our existing strengths."
"OSU was chosen in part for this award because the Howard Hughes Medical Institute recognizes that we can provide the type of up-close, one-on-one interaction between students and scientists that really encourages them and provides a mentor relationship," he said.
The continued support from this charitable foundation will be used to create new university courses and improve existing ones, acquire new equipment for education in cell biology, and operate a summer research program for undergraduate majors in the biological sciences.
A major commitment will also support and expand three innovative K-12 outreach programs developed at OSU - some of which have gained national attention - to encourage student interest in biology and other scientific careers, especially among women and minority groups.
Specific initiatives that will benefit from the funding include:
- Fifteen undergraduate students each summer from OSU and neighboring colleges without active research programs will conduct biological research.
- Laboratory courses will be improved, including adding molecular biology lab instruction to courses for both science and non-science majors and creation of an undergraduate tissue culture course.
- The Science and Math Investigative Learning Experience, or SMILE program, will gain continued support, as it nurtures interest in math and science among Native American, Hispanic and other minority youth in elementary through high school programs across Oregon.
- The Science Education Partnerships, or SEPS program, an initiative that began as a group of OSU scientist-parents concerned about the science education opportunities of their children, will be expanded statewide and help bring a new network of scientist volunteers into K-12 classrooms.
- The existing COASTNET high school program will be expanded to Oregon middle schools as STREAMNET, in which many small middle schools in Oregon coastal communities will help monitor nearby streams and estuaries, tabulate valid scientific data and share it through the Internet.
"This funding will provide important support for both our pre-college outreach and on-campus undergraduate programs," Mathews said. "For instance, a new $150,000 flow cytometer used for medical diagnostics will be purchased and dedicated entirely to undergraduate instruction. Some students will use it to help prepare for more advanced programs in pre-medicine, and others will learn research skills they could take straight into the job market."
OSU's outreach programs, Mathews said, are also a key to the successful training of undergraduate students in biology and other sciences. The first SMILE students, for instance, are now graduating from college after years of K-12 science club experiences. Over the past two years, about 90 percent of high school seniors in SMILE have gone on to college, compared to a statewide average of about 60 percent.
SMILE has gained national recognition for as a model outreach initiative, and participants in COASTNET indicate they plan to attend college at nearly double the rate of other high school graduates in these coastal communities.
The SEPS program, which organizers now hope to take statewide, already has a database of 150 scientists who are volunteering their time in classroom visits, mentoring, curriculum improvements and preparing teaching materials. New activities might include anything from a workshop in molecular biology or space exploration to a week-long environmental science camp for sixth graders.
A previous four-year, $2 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute also recently led to the dedication of new, state-of-the-art biology laboratories for the benefit of undergraduate science students at OSU, especially those seeking careers in medicine. These advanced labs make possible everything from studying the nature of cancer cells to electrophoretic DNA analysis.
The grants program of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute is the largest private initiative in U.S. history to enhance science education at all levels, from preschool through postgraduate training.