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Howard Hughes Medical Institute to fund science education, outreach programs


Jim Barlow, Life Sciences Editor
(217) 333-5802;

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — An ongoing, multi-faceted science education and outreach program, which benefits undergraduates as well as elementary through high school teachers and students across Illinois, is among 44 proposals nationwide that will receive funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Maryland-based HHMI announced today (Tuesday) that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will receive $1.7 million over four years. In all, $80 million in grants were awarded for 44 proposals that had been submitted by 189 institutions.

"We are absolutely thrilled to receive another HHMI grant," said Susan Fahrbach, a professor of entomology and campus director of the HHMI-funded programs. "I believe we were chosen because of the strength of our existing programs. Without the infrastructure support provided by HHMI, none of these programs would exist on our campus."

The new grant allows for the continuation of four HHMI-supported programs: the Hughes Undergraduate Research Fellows (HURF); Prairie Flowers; the Biotechnology Outreach Program known as BEOP; and the BOAST Academy.

The Illinois campus has received HHMI funding for these undergraduate science education programs, in their present form, since 1993, Fahrbach said. The programs are a joint activity of the School of Integrative Biology and the School of Molecular & Cellular Biology. The programs include a substantial outreach component, she added.

Since summer 1993, 402 undergraduates – about two-thirds of them from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – have gone through the nine-week HURF summer internship. This summer, 31 students are participating. Participants live together in campus-approved housing, attend weekly career workshops and work 40 hours a week in research laboratories. Some students continue in the program during the subsequent school year.

HURF participants may work in any campus unit, choosing their research mentors through a guided matching process. HHMI funding covers stipends and housing for the students. The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences contributes tuition waivers, but individual faculty members contribute research costs out of their own budgets. Hundreds of faculty members, many on a repeating basis, from a variety of fields have participated.

"In the usual undergraduate science curricula, most students never experience using the scientific method," said crop scientist Michael Plewa, who mentors HURF students.
"Laboratory courses primarily teach procedure. I want students to understand that science is a creative process akin to the arts, music, poetry, writing, etc. I tell my students that their palette is the question at hand, their canvas the laboratory bench and their creativity is expressed by the elegance of the experimental design."

Prairie Flowers provides on-campus workshops, led by Illinois faculty, to upper elementary and middle school teachers in Illinois. In 2001-2002, a total of 340 teachers participated by attending the workshops or by using specially designed Prairie Flowers science-teaching kits to help them with hands-on teaching projects in their classrooms.

BEOP trains high school teachers in biotechnology issues and provides lending kits that allow their students to do hands-on molecular biology experiments. Program participants this past year developed a course specifically for Chicago’s public schools, and they designed biotechnology lessons for use in grade schools. High school teachers also borrowed BEOP-created science kits to teach more than 5,000 students.

The BOAST Academy is a science-enriched after-school program for academically at-risk children at Champaign's Kenwood Elementary School. Last year, 27 students benefited. HHMI support allows for a low child-to-staff ratio. The children also get to present posters of their work, alongside the entries of HURF members, many of whom mentor the children, at a special session where HHMI-supported work is displayed.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This release complements one by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. For a copy of the HHMI release, contact Jim Barlow or Jennifer Donovan at HHMI, (301) 215-8859.