Regions Southwest Virginia

Radford University and Virginia Tech awarded $1 million grants to boost STEM education

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The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the largest private, nonprofit supporter of U.S. science education, announced Wednesday that two Virginia schools are receiving $1 million each as part of the HHMI’s new Inclusive Excellence initiative.

Radford University and Virginia Tech are among 24 higher-education institutions across the country that were selected for a first round of grant funding in a program that seeks to boost inclusion in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education.  

"We are honored to be the recipients of this very prestigious grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute," Radford University President Brian O. Hemphill, said in a statement.

The initiative aims to increase the capacity of colleges and universities to engage all students in science practices. HHMI particularly wants to focus on undergraduates who come to college from diverse backgrounds, including underrepresented ethnic minorities, first-generation college students and working adults with families.

“We’re thinking differently about how HHMI can help move science education forward,” the institute’s president, Erin O’Shea, said in a statement.  “The challenges this program addresses are important for all of us who care deeply about developing a more inclusive and diverse scientific community.”

The initiative shifts responsibility onto the schools — improving the structure of the curriculum and the way it’s delivered, for example, adjusting school policies and procedures, training faculty and improving the educational climate and culture.

“Too many times we approach diversity with a deficit mindset in which interventions are aimed at ‘fixing the students,’ ” David Asai, senior director for science education at HHMI, said in a statement. Instead, the initiative focuses on making the culture of an institution more inclusive. “We want to change the way schools do business.”

The 2017 Inclusive Excellence awards considered proposals from 511 schools. HHMI is awarding $1 million each to the 24 schools, which all proposed plans for engaging more students in science at their campuses. The awards are part of the first round of the initiative.  A second round of the competition is currently underway and results will be announced next spring. 

At Radford. the grant will support a newly created program known as REALISE, which was designed to create a welcoming and inclusive learning environment. A large component of the project is the expansion of the university's Maker opportunities focus, especially in entry-level biology, chemistry, physics and other science courses.

Maker is a national movement, commonly practiced at higher education institutions, that encourages creative engagement between faculty and students to solve real-world problems. At Radford, students and faculty have worked on a number of STEM-related projects, including 3D printing, electronics and multimedia, e-textiles and fabrics and programming and microcontrollers.

By targeting introductory-level courses, Radford wants to introduce students early on to STEM fields and direct them toward similar career options.

At Virginia Tech, HHMI said the faculty plan to improve abilities to be inclusive and departments will modify curricula so that students can fully participate in experiential learning opportunities.

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