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PSU to receive $2 million grant to improve science education and retention
Author: John Kirkland
Posted: June 9, 2014

(Portland, Ore.) June 9, 2014 – Portland State University (PSU) will receive a $2 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) for a project to improve the teaching of science at the undergraduate level and raise student success in the sciences.

PSU was one of 37 research universities throughout the country chosen by HHMI to receive grants to improve science education.  The awards were announced last week. The grant initiative is intended to help schools focus on significant, sustained improvement in retaining students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

Each of the 37 colleges will receive five-year grants ranging from $1.2 to $2.4 million.  They were selected after three rounds of peer review from among 170 applicants.

PSU’s project is hoped to decrease the student failure rate in key science and mathematics courses, increase the rate at which students continue through course sequences, improve their learning experiences and help them develop a “positive science identity.” 

A big part of achieving these goals will be to introduce a more collaborative approach to the teaching of science at PSU in which students will engage with each other in discussing real-world problems.  All students – but especially underrepresented minorities who often don’t see themselves as future scientists – will benefit from this hands-on approach rather than traditional lecture style teaching, said PSU chemistry professor Gwen Shusterman who applied for the grant.

Shusterman said this collaborative approach – called “student talk” – mimics the way scientists do research, and by shifting to this style she’s hoping students will get hooked on science earlier in their academic careers.

“We’re trying to change the perceptions about what science is,” Shusterman said. “Science is not just a bunch of facts. It’s about real problems. By being presented with problems students can relate to in their everyday lives, they will be more engaged and the information they learn will be more retainable.”

Part of the grant will pay for a new assistant professor at PSU specializing in how science is taught.  PSU also will hold seminars over the summer to train faculty in collaborative teaching styles.