UD Education News: HHMI Award Supports Undergraduate Discovery

September 16, 1998

At 21, Brooke Heidenfelder of Doylestown, Pa., is still an undergraduate at the University of Delaware, but she has pursued graduate-level research for the past four summers. Supervised by UD's Don Dennis, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, she's investigating an enzyme from the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that triggers key replication reactions.

Last year, Heidenfelder's research, sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute of Silver Springs, Md., earned a first-place prize in a competition organized by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. "I like immunology," she says, when asked about her career goals. "I'm thinking I may go into that field."

Another HHMI undergraduate researcher at UD, Amanda Simons of Mount Laurel, N.J., recently coauthored a scholarly journal article describing a yeast protein that may indirectly promote the recombination of genetic material. Studies of recombination mechanisms may ultimately shed light on a variety of genetic diseases, explains Simons, 21, who works in the laboratory of Junghuei Chen, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

Heidenfelder and Simons are among many UD undergraduates discovering the rewards of scientific investigation through special projects, and through active learning exercises-thanks to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Most recently, HHMI on Sept. 16 named Delaware to receive a $1.6 million, four-year grant for new programs to complement existing, successful problem-based learning (PBL) initiatives, which turn undergraduate students into detectives, by prompting them to investigate real-world problems. Delaware was one of 58 research universities to receive a total of $91.1 million in HHMI grants designed to strengthen undergraduate education programs in the biological sciences.

To win the HHMI award, Delaware submitted one of 191 proposals reviewed by a panel of distinguished scientists and educators working with the prestigious medical research organization.

Active Learning at Delaware

On a blackboard in UD's Brown Laboratory, Harold B. White III, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry and program director for the new HHMI grant, has written a Chinese proverb:"I hear, and I will forget. I see, and I may remember. I do, and I will understand." The words are a reminder, he says, that learning takes place faster and more effectively "when lessons are delivered in story form, and students participate in an active way."

Student Dennis Yoon of Park Ridge, N.J., agrees. Confronted with a photosynthesis problem-the process by which green plants transform carbon dioxide into biomolecules in the presence of sunlight-Yoon shakes his head. He learned about photosynthesis years ago, he says, by listening to traditional lectures. "I remember memorizing the entire process, step by step," he says. "Now, I don't remember any of it."

In contrast, Yoon and other students in White's biochemistry classes retain much of what they learn by investigating real problems presented in a story-like format. To prove this point, White surprised his students last week with an impromptu pop quiz, questioning them about a story he told in a previous PBL lesson.

"How old was Albert Szent-Gyorgyi when he died?" White asks.

"Was he 93?" a student responds immediately.

White nods, smiling. "Why did he win the Nobel Prize?"

"Vitamin C," someone else responds, correctly.

"Where and when did I meet him?" White queries.

"Uh, somewhere in Massachusetts."

White says that he did, indeed, meet the Nobel Prize winner at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, located in Massachusetts.

His quiz continues, including questions about how many times Szent-Gyorgi married (four) and the age of his last wife when he married her (19). His students can't be stumped. "While this was just a trivia quiz," White notes, "it shows how well information can be retained when it's presented in an understandable context."

Such anecdotal evidence suggests that active learning techniques built around stories help students learn more effectively and retain information longer. White and other PBL pioneers at UD also point to pre- and post-class surveys, which provide more concrete evidence that the method works. White, who earned his Ph.D. at Brandeis University and served as a research fellow in Harvard's Department of Chemistry before joining the UD faculty in 1971, says students faced with real questions learn to think critically and work cooperatively in teams.

They also learn to identify the limits of their existing knowledge, and they gain critical investigative skills. Yoon, Heidenfelder and other students, for example, quickly concluded they should hit the library to determine "whether all the carbon atoms in clothing are ultimately derived from photosynthesis."

And, White says, "That's the whole point. They need to take the initiative to solve the problem independently. They won't be able to hold jobs or succeed in graduate school if they don't know how to find answers."

HHMI award at work

Over the next four years, the $1.6 million HHMI grant will support: (1) interdisciplinary research projects by undergraduates, including minority students; (2) outreach efforts to promote biological sciences at the high-school level; (3) faculty development and implementation of active learning methods; and (4) new equipment.

The HHMI award also will help UD expand its existing NUCLEUS program (Network for Undergraduate Collaborative Learning Experiences for Underrepresented Scholars), reports David C. Usher, associate professor of biological sciences at UD, who coauthored the HHMI proposal. Established in 1993, the NUCLEUS program has served 59 students to date. Enrollment has increased from 26 to 129, and nearly half the group has gone on to pursue an advanced degree.
  • HHMI Undergraduate Research Scholars. Each year, an estimated 16 undergraduates-including one from Lincoln University and one from Delaware State University-will pursue biomedically related summer research projects at UD, thanks to HHMI. Students who submit promising research proposals will receive $3,000, plus $750 for supplies. Faculty from various departments will mentor the HHMI scholars, so that a student investigating, say, protein folding, might work with a chemist, a chemical engineer, a mathematician and others.

    "We want to promote diversity," Usher says, "and so we're involving other universities with predominantly minority student populations. We hope that someday we'll see more minority students going into basic research fields, getting their Ph.D.s. This program is one step in that direction."

  • Outreach to High School Students. With terms like "DNA fingerprinting" now in common use, Usher says, "Molecular biology impinges on everyday life." Unfortunately, he adds, "It's not very portable!" That's why Usher teamed up with other UD faculty to develop the Virtual Van-a mobile classroom with laboratory facilities.

    Teenagers will be introduced to basic principles of human heredity and development by learning about DNA fingerprinting. First, they will watch a video illustrating techniques. "Students will then investigate a fictitious murder, using mouse blood," Usher says. "They will have to match up DNA in a blood sample to identify the murderer. The samples will be analyzed at UD, and the results will be posted on the World Wide Web. We'll involve mathematics teachers to statistically analyze the samples and social studies teachers to discuss ethical issues related to DNA fingerprinting."

  • Faculty Development and Use of Active Learning Tools. Some five faculty members annually will be selected for the next four years to receive $1,000 and to participate in the University's Institute for Transforming Undergraduate Education. The funds may be used for equipment such as a laptop computer, to support undergraduate scholarship, to develop web-based course materials or for any other project that promotes active learning.

  • Upgrading Educational Equipment for Undergraduates. "If you take a look at undergraduate laboratories, they have usually been set up to support the traditional, lecture format," Usher notes. "We want to redesign them to support active learning." Students working in small groups to solve different aspects of a single problem must be able to communicate with each other and with a teacher via electronic mail, he says. And, computer-driven probes must be set up to deliver data to the teams-and to classrooms-in real-time.

White's home page: http://www.udel.edu/chem/white/

Web site: www.hhmi.org/undergrad98

University of Delaware

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