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Tackling Real-world Problems

Howard Hughes Medical Institute- Girl testing water

Students in beginning chemistry, biology, environmental science and microbiology courses at the University of Idaho will soon get a revamped laboratory experience that allows them to tackle real-world problems. 

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has awarded a $1.2 million, five-year grant to UI’s Biosciences Retention and Academic Innovation Network for Students, or BRAINS, program with the goal of attracting and retaining more students to science, technology, engineering and mathematics – or STEM – fields. 

Beginning this year, the BRAINS program will introduce a new curriculum to a select number of first-year and sophomore-level laboratory classes, with an initial focus on water-quality issues in the state of Idaho. 

Students will work in interdisciplinary teams to analyze samples from Idaho waterways. Students will learn basic lab skills while studying the effects changes in water quality have on fish and other organisms, the environment and surrounding communities.

“The University of Idaho is excited to provide our first- and second-year students with authentic research experiences that will show them the benefits of studying STEM fields,” said UI President Chuck Staben. “Idaho needs future leaders with robust STEM backgrounds, and this innovative approach will help students start strong and continue on in the sciences.” 

Universities nationwide struggle to attract students to STEM fields and keep their interest after their first year. According to a 2012 President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology Report, fewer than 40 percent of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete a STEM degree.

HHMI issued a challenge to research universities in 2013 to develop effective strategies that will lead to significant and sustained improvement in the persistence in science by all students, including those students who belong to groups underrepresented in science. UI is one of 37 universities – out of 170 total applicants nationwide – to be awarded a grant.

Trish Hartzell, a UI microbiology professor and co-director for the HHMI award, said the new labs will provide students with meaningful experiences to spark their interest in the sciences and keep them engaged. The project will track participating students to see whether they stay in or enter STEM disciplines.

“It motivates students when they do something they know is real,” Hartzell said. “They’re generating real information that matters to people. We hope they will take what they have learned back to their communities to engage entire families in science and health.” 

Melinda Hamilton, co-director and UI’s director of STEM education, said the project aims to attract the attention of groups that are underrepresented in STEM fields, such as Idaho’s Hispanic and American Indian populations. Water samples will come from Idaho communities, and students will develop solutions for pollution and other issues that affect Idahoans. 

“This is a way to engage them in research that is really relevant to their culture and their community,” Hamilton said. 

After the project’s first year, the curriculum will expand into more classes and incorporate new focus areas, such as Idaho aquaculture. Project leaders hope to convert all science labs to the new curriculum by the end of five years and continue the project beyond the grant period.

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