Research News

Accomplished research scientists are also outstanding teachers of undergraduates

Of the 15 recently announced Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professors--who will receive $1 million over five years to pursue innovative ideas in the undergraduate science classroom--13 have received support from the National Science Foundation

In 2002, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) launched a program to recognize and support select research scientists who are also outstanding undergraduate science teachers. Known as HHMI Professors, the community now boasts 55 faculty members. Each professor is awarded $1 million over five years to pursue his/her best ideas in the undergraduate science classroom. This year's cohort includes 15 new faculty, 13 of whom have receiving funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) during their careers.

Ariel Anbar, from Arizona State University (ASU) is a pioneer in the study of Earth's environmental history. Along with Susan Golden and Christopher Impey, he is one of three HHMI Professors who have been supported by NSF's Education and Human Resources directorate (EHR). Anbar teaches in the geosciences, where authentic student experiences include visits to geological sites of particular relevance.

"There's no substitute for taking students into the field," says Anbar, "but the reality is, most undergraduates taking geoscience courses--even many geoscience majors--don't get much field experience as undergraduates. Maybe they get one or two really great field trips, they won't get to see the classic locations around the world that teach us about the history of our planet."

Anbar sees this as a shortcoming of the typical undergraduate geoscience program, which is why he is developing a series of immersive virtual field trips (iVFTs) in conjunction with ASU education technologist Geoffrey Bruce and associate professor Steven Semken (Anbar's co-principal investigator on a research award through EHR's Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE). The iVFTs, which are supported in part by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) through funding for education and outreach activities, are intended to teach students geological concepts and to expose them to the process by which scientists piece together evidence to understand how life has changed throughout time.

From Anbar's perspective, each iVFT can "provide at least some of the gains you would get out of a real field trip, at far less cost than a comparable physical trip." With these iVFTs, students can visit sites across the globe without the travel expenses. More importantly, the project has extended beyond Anbar's own work, with other faculty contributing field trips, based on Anbar's technology framework.

Anbar is also a pioneer in the development of entirely online courses that use interactive technologies. Using the platform developed by start-up Smart Sparrow, Anbar built an online, game-like course, titled "Habitable Worlds" (or HabWorlds), in which students begin with a field of stars and, by learning and applying basic science concepts, must locate a star with a habitable planet. This course, which makes use of the iVFTs as well as other immersive and interactive technologies, is geared toward non-science majors. Funding from DUE has helped Anbar's team with certain redesign elements and the development of rigorous assessment.

One of Anbar's research themes is "that online done right, by which I mean experiences that are interactive and engaging, ought to do a better job of teaching science to non-science majors than typical face-to-face lecture courses that offer little interactivity."

"Students will write things online that they wouldn't say face-to-face, which gives me the opportunity to engage them," said Anbar. "In the lecture class, these are the students who would just sit in the back or wouldn't even come to class."

Although top-notch online courses cost a lot to develop and maintain, Anbar says that there is simply no substitute for quality educational experiences, which are the main driver behind his work.

"If I'm a professor, half my job is teaching, and I should be putting a lot of creative energy into figuring out how to do that well," says Anbar.

Mentorship and student-focused teaching enhance persistence in STEM

Susan Golden, a faculty member at the University of California, San Diego, established her research career by investigating the mechanism of the circadian clock in cyanobacteria. While all of Golden's research awards are from the Directorate for Biological Sciences, her dedication to mentorship has advanced the careers of countless students. In particular, Golden has advised and mentored several Graduate Research Fellowship recipients and one postdoc from Russia, under a NSF-NATO Postdoctoral Fellowship, all of which were funded by the Division of Graduate Education.

Golden says that she enjoys mentoring because it gives her the opportunity "to help somebody else avoid the difficult way, to find the easier path."

Golden, who by all accounts has been highly successful in her career, reflects that "I didn't come from a background where you would expect that I would obtain outstanding educational opportunities," in reference to growing up in Arkansas and attending public schools. However, she says that as early as elementary school, certain teachers in her life made the difference in her educational track.

Clearly, Golden has carried forward the notion that supporting students can lead to success: Students have contacted her years after they were enrolled in one of her courses as undergraduates to say that she made a difference in their lives, not just in their science classroom.

Of course, mentorship is merely one aspect of student-focused teaching practices with the goal of enhancing persistence in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. Golden is also committed to teaching with transparency and clarity.

"I want to demystify the process of learning," says Golden, "to make it clear that we have a common goal--for students to learn concepts, information, and problem solving that will enable them to understand biological concepts, whether they come up in class or in the evening news."

Accordingly, Golden spends a lot of time thinking about her course material from the student's perspective, in addition to how she can help her students learn most effectively. Golden recognizes that undergraduates "usually come from high schools where they were not taught good study habits. For the freshmen in particular," she continues, "I feel like I have to help teach them what good study habits are."

Christopher Impey, an astronomer from the University of Arizona has received six awards from EHR during his career, in addition to six awards from the Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences.

From Impey's perspective, almost anything is worth trying if it means enhancing student engagement. For example, Impey uses semester-long creative projects in which students combine their interests, such as business, with astronomy.

"A business major might research space tourism and then write up the project with fliers and brochures and give a pitch to the class. It's really exciting to see students take off with it, especially if they're a little science skeptical in the beginning," says Impey.

He's also a major proponent of incorporating real data into undergraduate projects, citing that "the students get a kick out of it, because they know it's the real deal. This is Hubble telescope data--it costs a lot of money to get this data, and real researchers are also working with it."

Supporting large-scale science literacy

While these three faculty were recognized as HHMI Professors for their work in undergraduate science education, much of their effort extends beyond their own classroom, with potential for significant impacts on large-scale science literacy.

Habitable Worlds has been taught five times to date, reaching more than 1,500 students. Anbar and developer Smart Sparrow are now working on providing course licenses to other universities. Further, following the initial set of iVFTs that Anbar developed, the project now has 14 field trips available--all publicly accessible through ASU's website--with six more on the way. The iVFTs make some of the most remote locations around the world, such as Shark Bay in Australia, accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.

Impey is currently teaching a massive open online course (MOOC) with nearly 15,000 enrollees. Impey relates that, "45 percent of my students are in foreign countries...from 160 different countries." The MOOC, called "Astronomy: State of the Art," covers the fundamentals of astronomy while accentuating the exciting areas of current research.

"The fact that someone in a really remote area can get this content for free," says Impey, "Well, I think that's great."

HHMI Professors are committed to undergraduate education

As a group, the 2014 HHMI Professors received more than 80 grants from six NSF directorates since 1987, when Susan Golden was awarded her first research grant from the Directorate for Biological Sciences. Beyond the three professors supported through the Education and Human Resources directorate, another 10 professors have been funded by various research directorates across NSF. Their research and their work with undergraduates are described below.

Brian Crane, Cornell University

Crane's research and teaching interests at Cornell University fall among the biochemistry and chemistry disciplines. In particular, Crane typically teaches both undergraduate introductory chemistry and upper level courses for more advanced students, some of which he helped develop. Crane has also contributed significantly to curriculum revision efforts in biology and chemistry and regularly mentors undergraduate students. In 2001, Crane received a NSF CAREER award from NSF's Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences to develop his research program in the structural basis of redox chemistry and long-range electron transfer in biological crystals.

Mark Goldman, University of California, Davis

As an assistant professor at UC Davis, Goldman's research focus is in the areas of computational biology and neuroscience. Goldman previously developed an undergraduate computational course entitled "Math Tools for Neuroscience," in addition to other interdisciplinary courses. Both at UC Davis and in his former position at Wellesley College, Goldman has played an integral role in restructuring the core undergraduate curricula in his discipline to include more quantitative elements. Goldman received UC Davis' inaugural annual award for Graduate Mentorship in Neuroscience. Goldman has an active NSF research award from the Division of Information and Intelligent Systems to explore the role of dendritic processing in persistent neural activity.

Joseph Jez, Washington University in St. Louis

In his research group, Jez immerses undergraduates in the research process, providing opportunities for students to author their own proposals and conduct their own projects. While Jez is officially an associate professor of the department of biology at Washington University in St. Louis, his research interests lie within the areas of biochemistry and structural biology, with a focus on the biochemical networks in plants and microbes. Jez incorporates real scientific problems and team-driven student projects into an undergraduate laboratory course that he teaches. Jez has received several NSF awards from the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences to study the molecular basis of various plant hormones.

Tracy Johnson, University of California, Los Angeles

Johnson is a professor in the department of molecular, cell and developmental biology at UCLA with a research focus on the cellular synthesis, splicing, and processing of RNA to regulate gene expression. Due to her record in mentoring and training students from underrepresented minority groups, the UC San Diego African-American Student group named her a "Most Outstanding Faculty Member." Johnson is a recipient of a NSF CAREER award from the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences in the Directorate for Biological Sciences, as well as a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. Johnson has an active NSF research award to understand the role of the yeast cap binding complex in gene expression and RNA processing.

Jané Kondev, Brandeis University

A professor of physics, Kondev is also a co-author of the textbook Physical Biology of the Cell, which is used in both undergraduate and graduate courses around the world. Kondev's research focuses on the quantitative aspects of cell biology by applying his expertise in theoretical physics to experiments on single molecules and single cells. Kondev recently helped develop a new major in biological physics at Brandeis University. Kondev has an active research award from the Division of Materials Research in the Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences, as well as a previous NSF CAREER award.

Anne McNeil, University of Michigan

As a professor of chemistry at University of Michigan, McNeil has received several distinctions for teaching, including the Provost's Teaching Innovation Prize and the Class of 1923 Memorial Teaching Award. McNeil is a current recipient of a NSF CAREER award from the Division of Chemistry and a previous awardee of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. McNeil's research focuses on the development of new methods of synthesis for functional organic materials, including nickel-catalyzed chain growth polymerization reactions. As an instructor, McNeil focuses on incorporating active learning opportunities for students into her curriculum.

Jeffrey Moore, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Moore has received numerous NSF awards from the Divisions of Chemistry and Materials Research for his work in the development of mechanically responsive polymeric materials, among other areas. Moore has taught introductory organic chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for 14 years, during which time he has changed the emphasis in his course from chemistry content to the development of problem-solving skills. Moore practices flipped-classroom teaching practices and provides students with a variety of electronic resources to support learning. Early in his career, Moore received a NSF Young Investigators Award from the Division of Chemistry.

Aydogan Ozcan, University of California, Los Angeles

Ozcan is a professor of electrical engineering at UCLA with a record of interdisciplinary and innovative research that extends beyond his home discipline into the areas of imaging and diagnostic techniques and global health applications. Ozcan is highly supportive of undergraduates in his research group and participates in UCLA's RISE-UP program via the Center for Excellence in Engineering and Diversity to enhance the recruitment, retention, and graduation of underrepresented minorities in the science and engineering disciplines. Ozcan received an NSF CAREER award from the Division of Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental, and Transport Systems for work on a cell phone-based imaging technology to develop holographic images of cells.

Muhammad Zaman, Boston University

Professor of biomedical engineering Muhammad Zaman is focused on the development of novel tools to better understand the motility of cancer cells and the creation of new technologies with potential to impact healthcare problems in the developing world. Zaman engages students in regular feedback in his courses, to ensure that his teaching practices are as effective as possible. Zaman has an active NSF research award from the Division of Materials Research in the Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences on the interactions of normal and transformed human mammary epithelial cells in extracellular matrices, toward developing new insights into how cells interact with their environments in the human body.