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William & Mary receives $1.5 million from HHMI for STEM education

  • A new grant from HHMI
    A new grant from HHMI
    William & Mary has received a $1.5 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The money will fund initiatives designed to help undergraduate STEM majors stay the course to complete their degrees. These students were photographed for an announcement of a similar grant in 2010.
    Photo by Stephen Salpukas

William & Mary has received a five-year, $1.5 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to fundamentally change the university’s approach to undergraduate STEM education. The William & Mary award is part of HHMI’s 2014 Sustaining Excellence competition, which evaluated 170 proposals from U.S. universities and awarded a total of $60 million to 37 institutions.

The Sustaining Excellence program funds new, evidence-based strategies that promise to improve STEM education and, in particular, to encourage students to remain in science and math programs throughout their undergraduate careers.

“Our partnership with HHMI will address the critical challenge of increasing student commitment to STEM disciplines,” said President Taylor Reveley. “We will focus especially on underrepresented students to ensure that they not only complete STEM degrees, but do so with strong academic credentials and post-graduate outcomes.”

“I am overjoyed at this news,” said Margaret Saha, William & Mary’s Chancellor Professor of Biology and the director of the HHMI program at William & Mary. “Previous HHMI support totaling $7.2 million has had a profound, positive impact on undergraduate science education here at William & Mary. However, through our partnership with HHMI we have become more keenly aware of the need to increase persistence in STEM fields for students from groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences, including first-generation college students and students of color.”  

National statistics indicate 60 percent of students who begin college intending to major in STEM fields do not complete a STEM degree; the figure jumps to 80 percent for students from ethnic groups underrepresented in math and the sciences. While these numbers are more encouraging at William & Mary, similar trends are present.

“Pursuing STEM majors at the college level can be extremely challenging for all students regardless of background, but this is particularly true for students who are providing their own financial support, have faced unusual adversity, or are coming from high schools that do not have strong science programs,” Saha said. “We want to level the playing field and ensure that each and every student who wants to pursue a science or math major succeeds in his or her goal.”  

The HHMI grant, augmented by institutional resources, will fund the establishment of the Wren Scholars Program, which will focus on attracting, engaging, and mentoring all incoming students from underrepresented backgrounds contemplating STEM majors.

The Program is named for the revered scientist and architect Sir Christopher Wren, who in 1660 was a founding member of the Royal Society of natural philosophers and whose innovative work influenced such contemporaries as Sir Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle and Blaise Pascal. Wren is associated with the design of the College’s Sir Christopher Wren Building, the oldest college building in the United States.

William & Mary’s distinguished science faculty will mentor about 40 Wren Scholars each year and offer them an array of research experiences early in their college careers.  The Program is designed to build a strong cohort of underrepresented students who meet regularly as a group for discussion on academic resources and various STEM-related topics, and who will participate in four initiatives:

Pre-Freshman Summer Transition

To prepare for the rigor and demands of their introductory science courses, students can take a specially-designed course such as the Neurobiology of Learning or Topics in Contemporary Science.   

Research-Based Freshman Lab Course

Patterned on the successful HHMI-funded SEA-PHAGES Program at William & Mary, Wren Scholars will become immersed in the process and culture of science in place of the standard introductory biology lab.

Summer Research Fellowship for Rising Sophomores

Wren Scholars will have opportunities to continue their research experiences through placement in faculty science labs during the summer before and during their sophomore academic year, and to attend scientific meetings where they can present their research findings.

Summer Chemistry Scholarship

Wren Scholars can receive stipends that will enable them to take introductory chemistry—a challenging course for many students—in the summer following their freshman year. This will allow them to devote their full attention to this linchpin course for many STEM majors, while making their freshman year more manageable and enabling them to engage more fully in their early research experiences.

“For over 15 years, HHMI has been an invaluable partner with William & Mary and we are honored to be the only institution in Virginia included in its new Sustaining Excellence awards for science education,” Margaret Saha said. “The Wren Scholars Program is designed to ensure that all STEM students develop the knowledge, confidence and desire to persist and succeed.”

Since 1988, HHMI has awarded more than $935 million in grants to 274 public and private colleges and universities to support science education in the United States. William & Mary was awarded its first grant from HHMI in 1989, and has received a total of $8.7 million to pursue innovative, interdisciplinary strategies to enhance undergraduate science education.  HHMI’s support has enabled more than 92,000 undergraduates nationwide to work in research labs, and has transformed science education into a creative, interdisciplinary endeavor that reflects the excitement of real research.