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Oberlin Receives $800K from Howard Hughes Medical Institute

May. 25, 2012

Assistant Neuroscience Professor Tracie Paine, seen with Geoff Diehl '12, conducts research on rat brains to find a treatment for the negative symptoms of schizophrenia.
Kevin Reeves

The college is receiving an $800,000 grant over four years from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) as part of an initiative to create more engaging science classes, bring real-world research experiences to students, and increase the diversity of students who study science.

With the grant, Oberlin has been recognized by HHMI as an incubator of new ideas that can serve as a model for other institutions to improve how science is taught. Oberlin is among 47 small colleges and universities—collectively referred to as primarily undergraduate institutions—receiving more than $50 million from the HHMI’s Science Education Initiative, which is designed to encourage long-term collaboration among the schools.

Oberlin will collaborate with other schools on the institute’s program theme of “competency-based curriculum,” says Jason Belitsky, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry and co-director of the project with Marta Laskowski, associate professor of biology. Belitsky says that Oberlin’s grant proposal features collaboration at both the undergraduate and faculty levels.  

“Collaborative activities for students include peer learning and peer mentorship, while faculty workshops will foster collaborations across the sciences, with a focus on integrating quantitative material from different disciplines.”

The college will establish a center for quantitative skills, akin to the Writing Center, that will help natural science students strengthen their understanding of quantitative and formal reasoning skills. The center will provide peer support for basics such as math and graphs, and advanced skills, such as modeling, which are common in different disciplines.

“Biology and medicine are becoming increasing quantitative and interdisciplinary, and this project will prepare students to become leaders in those fields,” Belitsky says.  

Sean Decatur, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, says the HHMI grant reaffirms Oberlin’s achievements in science education and undergraduate research. “The HHMI award is a wonderful recognition of the excellent teaching and scholarship in the natural sciences at Oberlin.”

HHMI, a nonprofit medical research organization that ranks as one of the nation’s largest philanthropies, plays a powerful role in advancing biomedical research and science education in the United States. The institute spent $825 million for research and distributed $80 million in grant support for science education in fiscal year 2011. HHMI’s approach differs from that of many other organizations, including the federal government, because its science education awards are made at an institutional level and not to individuals. As a result, HHMI encourages science faculty and administrators at colleges and universities to work together to develop common educational goals.

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