What's HHMI Doing to Help Universities Improve STEM Education?

Back in 2013, Howard Hughes Medical Institute invited 203 research universities to pitch them on how to get more STEM majors to stick with it and complete their degrees. The foundation has announced the 37 winners, which will receive a combined $60 million in grants to improve the way science is taught in universities. Here’s a breakdown:

HHMI is the second-wealthiest foundation in the United States, and while it’s perhaps best known for its biomedical research grantmaking, the funder gives a ton to STEM higher ed. While the foundation’s research mantra is “people, not projects,” its STEM education approach is more like “programs not individuals.” It’s more about helping schools find ways to improve overall instruction, whether by research or initiatives like mentoring programs. Things that can scale.

Case in point is the Sustaining Excellence program. HHMI spent the past year or so evaluating proposals from invited applicants. The foundation recently announced the results, a suite of grants between $1.2 million and $2.4 million each over five years. HHMI conducted three rounds of peer review of the 170 applications. The goal is to improve persistence of students entering stem fields, along with the quality of introductory courses, citing the 60 percent of students who start as STEM majors that don’t complete STEM degrees. Here’s how the grants break down: 

  • Thirteen grantees were awarded for work in Student Learning and Faculty Development Communities. These grants support work to improve faculty-student interactions and collaborations, to better engage at-risk students and students just entering the fields. For example, William & Mary University will receive $1.5 million to establish a program that will mentor incoming students from underrepresented backgrounds who are contemplating STEM majors.
  • Eleven schools won in the category of Introductory Course and Curriculum Development, to reform the quality of early STEM courses. One example is Michigan State’s $1.5 million grant to reform physics and chemistry lab courses, and the creation of “digital evolution” education software modules, among other projects. The program will involve faculty from across disciplines. 
  • Ten schools were awarded for Course-based Research Experiences, efforts to involve undergraduates early in their study to participate in research work. UC Riverside will receive one of the larger grants in this category of $2.4 million, in part to expand participation in its Dynamic Genome course, which includes a hands-on bioinformatics lab.
  • Finally, four schools received grants to adapt the Freshman Research Initiative, a program originally developed at the University of Texas at Austin, which engages first year students in research under the guidance of faculty and grad student mentors. 

All of these grants were part of the one single, large initiative, but this kind of giving is hardly a done deal, as HHMI has extremely deep pockets and makes ongoing commitments to science education. See the full list of winners here, and read IP’s full profiles of HHMI’s education giving below.

Howard Hughes Medical Institute: Grants for STEM Higher Education

Howard Hughes Medical Institute: Grants for Science Education