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December 13, 2007

HHMI selects ULM as one of 12 institutions to launch nationwide science education experiment

The University of Louisiana at Monroe has been chosen by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute as one of 12 colleges and universities to participate in a nationwide genomics course that will involve first-year college students in authentic research.

In the fall of 2008, those students will take part in a year-long course — the Phage Genomics Research Initiative. This is the first major enterprise from HHMI's Science Education Alliance, which seeks to enhance the teaching of science and inspire new generations of scientists.

At ULM, biology professor Ann M. Findley said her institution serves students of diverse backgrounds with varying levels of preparedness and “extremely limited prior exposure to experimental science.”

“ULM's participation in the HHMI-SEA initiative will not only furnish our students with an exciting introduction to the process of doing science, it will also provide us with the opportunity to demonstrate that, when presented with a challenging laboratory environment and a committed support system, all engaged students can effectively transcend their high school preparation to become contributing members of this exciting national experiment,” said Findley.

Findley authored the ULM proposal, along with Chris Gissendanner, assistant professor of biology. They will serve as the experiment’s facilitators on campus.

Approximately 20 students at each institution will participate in the two-semester phage genomics research course, in which they will be taught to use sophisticated research techniques. Students will isolate bacterial viruses (phages) from their local soil, prepare the viral DNA for sequencing, and annotate and compare the sequenced genome. The goal is to immerse students in the process of doing science, and equip them with the critical thinking and communication skills necessary for successful research careers.

For faculty who will teach the phage genomics course, joining the SEA will help move the science curriculum at their institutions beyond “cookbook” style laboratory experiments and bring hands-on research to a larger group of students.

“The initial institutions we have selected represent a broad sampling of high quality higher education,” said Peter J. Bruns, vice president for grants and special programs at HHMI. “Although diverse in size and location, all participating schools share a desire to bring authentic discovery to freshman instruction. I am impressed by their commitment to the project and eagerly wait to see what a working alliance of such a diverse, yet commonly committed community, will yield.”

More about the Phage Genomics Research Initiative:

Earlier this Fall, HHMI invited all four-year institutions to apply to participate in the Phage Genomics Research Initiative. HHMI received 44 applications and selected 12 institutions.

Each institution will receive up to three years of support from HHMI to assist with faculty training, reagents, computing support, and DNA sequencing services for the course. Faculty from participating institutions will attend three training workshops before teaching the phage genomics course.

Twelve more institutions will join the program in the fall of 2009, and another 12 in the fall of 2010. When the Phage Genomics Research Initiative is running at capacity, 36 institutions and approximately 720 students will be participating. After three years of initial support by SEA, institutions wishing to continue offering the course must provide their own financial resources to cover reagents, sequencing, and computing costs.

Participants in the 2008-2009 course will benefit from a pilot phage genomics course currently running at the University of Pittsburgh. SEA staff will use student and faculty experiences in the pilot course to refine the curriculum and develop additional resources for professors and students.

The SEA’s role concerning the phage genomics course:

The SEA will foster the development of a national network of scientists and educators who work collaboratively to develop and distribute new materials and methods to the education community. HHMI has built the SEA using the knowledge and experience it has gained from supporting science education advances in the United States over the last 20 years.

The SEA is a new direction for HHMI. By creating it, HHMI is taking a more active role in catalyzing change in science education. The Institute is staffing the SEA program with its own employees, who are building the alliance with the help of HHMI's extensive network of grantees and educators. HHMI is committing a total of $4 million over the first four years of the program.

“The phage genomics course is the beginning of the transformation that the Science Education Alliance hopes to bring to science education,” said Tuajuanda C. Jordan, a biochemist and director of the SEA. “The institutions that we have chosen really see the long-term impact that the program can have on their students and their institutions. The participating faculty have support at all levels for implementing and expanding on the program.”

“We also hope their [students and faculty] work will make a significant contribution to the field of genomics,” said Jordan.

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