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Carleton Receives Howard Hughes Medical Institute Grant

June 29, 2004
By Sarah Maxwell

Carleton College has been named the recipient of an $800,000 grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to fund a major new project, the Carleton Interdisciplinary Science and Math Initiative (CISMI), which will be directed by Professor of Chemistry Trish Ferrett. This new initiative includes funding of summer student research, course and lab development, laboratory equipment, and the summer math and science program for enrolled students before their first year at Carleton.

This marks the fifth consecutive four-year grant that the HHMI has funded at Carleton. Only a few institutions have been successful in getting funded in all five proposal rounds. In developing this proposal last year, Carleton faculty were encouraged to look ahead, “think big,” and plan for what science and mathematics education should look like in the next 10 years. The intersections of biology with various fields in science and mathematics are the focus for this grant, and for future classes at Carleton. A major goal of CISMI is to infuse teaching and research at Carleton with the study of complex and integrated systems.

“The sciences at Carleton have traditionally been strong in a disciplinary sense,” said Ferrett. “We hope that CISMI will help students learn to study at the boundaries of these disciplines, and start to connect the disciplines in new ways. We hope to better prepare students to do the science of today and tomorrow, much of which requires multidisciplinary teams of scientists, mathematicians, and computer scientists.”

Ferrett points to scientific problems—disease spread and resistance, global climate change, cloning technologies, and how organisms process information and make decisions—as issues that don’t fall strictly into one area of traditional science. The CISMI program will attempt to replicate modern scientific research by pulling together people from all scientific and mathematical disciplines to work on common problems. At the core of Carleton’s CISMI initiative will be six faculty workshops over the next four years. Five topical workshops will span the scientific areas that have been targeted for development: bioinformatics, complexity and modeling, biochemistry, neuroscience, earth system science, and medical physics. These workshops will be a centerpiece for faculty learning, allowing them to modify existing courses and develop new ones in these areas. Another workshop series on “Pedagogical Strategies for Interdisciplinary Teaching” will aim to help all involved faculty learn more about the unique challenges of working across disciplinary lines, and what this means for student learning. Interdisciplinary education involves confronting uncertainty and complexity, and faculty will learn more about how to guide students in these areas.

Carleton will collaborate with Hope and St. Olaf colleges, both of whom also received HHMI grants, on faculty development. These schools have similar goals regarding faculty development, and will work together when planning the pedagogical workshop series. The HHMI grant also provides funding for course development in emerging areas of science and mathematics. Four new courses will be developed, and five existing courses will be modified. The new courses are: modern scientific epistemology, a bioinformatics course, a bioanalytical chemistry course and a scientific modeling course. The five courses to be modified are: the interdisciplinary senior capstone seminars (“comps”), which will now put together interdisciplinary groups of students and faculty to study the original work of a prominent scientist, who will visit Carleton for public talks and extensive group discussion; a project-based molecular biosciences lab, which will include interrogation of the West Nile Virus using an array of molecular techniques; a medical physics lab which will now include new labs on medical imaging and the physiology of hearing; a biochemistry lab, which will include inquiry-based projects rich in modern instrumentation for upper-level students; and a math course on probability models for DNA sequence evolution, a course in probability focused on explaining patterns of variation in DNA sequences. Carleton will also provide support in this area by replacing faculty who are engaged in developing courses.

In addition to faculty and course development, the grant also includes funding for new instrumentation and to redesign Carleton’s math and science summer program open to enrolled students to take before their first year at Carleton. This funding will help faculty follow up with students on their math and science learning during subsequent years at Carleton, particularly in introductory science courses.

“This program helps students who are underrepresented in science or who come in with varied levels of preparation,” said Ferrett. The grant includes funding to support summer student research, a critical component of Carleton’s traditional strength in the sciences. Fourteen students will be hired each summer to work with Carleton faculty on research in disciplinary and interdisciplinary projects. Program administration and assessment account for the balance of the funding.

“CISMI really fits into Carleton because interdisciplinary learning reinforces the foundational goal of a liberal education: to broaden student perspectives in order to prepare them to make defensible decisions about complex real-world problems through development of comparative, synthetic, integrative, and creative thinking,” Ferrett said.