How Two Funders Figured Out a Better Way to Teach STEM Subjects

To attract and retain more college students in STEM majors, a pair of funders at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute offer the following suggestion: teach STEM better.

Sounds simple enough, but David Asai and Erin O'Shea just might be onto something here. A presidential commission report found that less than half of students who enroll in a STEM major go on to complete a degree in that field, while many others change their majors to non-STEM fields. Worse still, students who changed their majors cited unengaging and ineffective instruction as a factor.

STEM educators love their fields of expertise; after all, they invested years of study and research. Yet, many of them have trouble transmitting that passion to a room full of freshmen and sophomores.

Asai's own experience as a college professor drives his interest in improving the quality of STEM teaching. He found that his years of study did not equip him to teach biology to a full lecture hall. His interest in STEM teaching grew after moving from a large university where research was king to a college that expected its science faculty to, you know, teach science.

O'Shea, meanwhile, taught at Harvard and worked with colleagues to create a course that introduced students to chemistry and biology through a series of detective-like case stories. The course drew hundreds of students each year, and life science majors increased more than 40 percent. STEM can be made more engaging and appealing. O'Shea knows, because she's done it.

Asai directs the undergraduate science education program at HHMI, and O'Shea is the institute's vice president and chief science officer. HHMI is in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and is dedicated to advancing medical research and science education. Both are interested in ideas and projects that uncover the best practices in STEM instruction, make STEM faculty into better teachers, and diversify the ranks of the nation's scientists. HHMI has grant opportunities through its Science Education and Research Training programs.

Grantseekers should approach HHMI with thoughtful proposals. Asai and O'Shea are both seasoned classroom veterans who have undoubtedly seen much that works— and doesn't— in teaching science and math to college students. They don't sound like funders who impress easily; but they also sound like staunch allies for the grantseeker with the right proposal.