Radford University awarded nationally prestigious science grant to boost campus Makers movement and STEM education

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The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) – the largest private, nonprofit supporter of science education in the United States – announced today that Radford University is the recipient of an exclusive $1 million grant as part of the institute’s new Inclusive Excellence initiative.


According to the HHMI release, Radford University is just one of two higher education institutions in Virginia to be selected to the prestigious program, which aims to help increase the capacity of colleges and universities to effectively engage all students in successful science practices. The initiative especially targets undergraduates who enter four-year institutions via non-traditional pathways.

The 2017 HHMI competition considered pre-proposals from 511 schools from across the United States. Over multiple stages of peer-review by scientists and science educators, HHMI identified 24 schools for Inclusive Excellence 2017 awards, signifying them as emerging leaders in Inclusive Excellence.

“We are honored to be the recipients of this very prestigious grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute,” said Radford University President Brian O. Hemphill. “This type of multifaceted, dynamic and collaborative ecosystem of support will be an example of our goal to transform Radford University into an innovative, premier university in the Commonwealth of Virginia and beyond with a keen focus on teaching, research and service.”

At Radford University, the HHMI grant will support the institution’s newly-created Inclusive Excellence project, titled “REALising Inclusive Science Excellence” (REALISE). Scheduled to commence this September, REALISE is designed to create a learning environment that is student-ready, welcoming and inclusive. A large component of the project is the expansion of the University’s Maker opportunities, especially in entry-level biology, chemistry, physics and other science courses.

Making is a national movement, commonly practiced at higher education institutions, that encourages creative engagement between faculty and students to solve real-world problems. The Makers movement fosters the do-it yourself mentality, experimentation, a spirit of collaboration and builds student confidence. Making helps students develop the skills they need to participate in additional undergraduate research, scholarship and creative activities, as well as succeed in their future careers.

By targeting introductory-level courses, REALISE aims to introduce students early on to STEM fields, pique their interest in these areas of study and direct them toward similar career options.

“The REALISE project will provide transformative learning opportunities for our faculty and students,” said Artis College of Science and Technology Dean Orion Rogers. “The incorporation of a making-theme with problem-based learning experiences into our entry-level science curriculum will inspire our faculty and engage our students, as well as serve as a model to catalyze institution-wide change in policies and practices limiting student success at Radford University.”

The Inclusive Excellence competition was created by HHMI in response to national data demonstrating that many students, particularly underserved groups (i.e. first-generation college students, underrepresented racial and ethnic groups), struggle in natural sciences. To apply for the HHMI award, schools were asked to take a hard look at their own student data and examine institutional and faculty practices that could be excluding students from STEM. Then, each school developed a plan to address problems they had identified involving inclusivity in STEM on their campus.

“Nationally, and at Radford, students in the natural sciences report they feel isolated from their peers and disciplines,” said Radford University Associate Professor of Biology and REALISE Project Manager Tara Phelps-Durr. “Some of this isolation is because, traditionally, first-year STEM courses are uninspiring with few hands-on activities. Faculty in the natural sciences at Radford University are already working to improve courses and incorporate more engaging activities. REALISE will allow faculty to expand existing efforts to improve curricula.”

In preparing the HHMI proposal, Radford’s Core Leadership Team, including Phelps-Durr, Rogers, Assistant Provost for Academic Programs Jeanne Mekolichick and Professor of Biology Jeremy Wojdak, found that faculty at Radford University want to improve pedagogy and support students but need adequate time and training to do so. They also learned that some students face non-academic obstacles to persistence and graduation.

As a result, the team created the REALISE program to break down these barriers and offer new and exciting ways for both faculty and students to engage in challenging and rewarding STEM learning opportunities.

“Because the main focus of REALISE is to foster a student-ready, welcoming and inclusive environment, the program will positively impact our entire academic culture by creating an environment where faculty and students believe that all can succeed, no matter their respective backgrounds,” Phelps-Durr said.

MakerSpaces have become an integral part of the Radford University learning experience. There are several MakerSpaces on Radford’s campus at which students and faculty work together to experiment, innovate and create solutions to real-world problems and invent fun and useful things. MakerSpaces immerse Radford University students in a variety of STEM-related projects, including 3D printing, electronics and multimedia, e-textiles and fabrics and programming and microcontrollers. Students and faculty from different academic disciplines are encouraged to work together to introduce new ways of thinking and unique methods to problem-solving.

REALISE will provide continued support for Radford University’s Makers movement, including increased time for faculty to develop Making projects. Faculty not directly involved in these projects will benefit from development opportunities aimed at enhancing inclusive instruction and effective pedagogy.

Current and prospective students will greatly benefit from a peer role-modeling aspect of the program, as well as a welcoming, student-ready learning culture.

“Peer role-model programs are known to increase community amongst students,” Phelps-Durr explained. “Such programs help students feel more connected to each other and their majors.”

In addition, the REALISE project will involve data collection to identify institutional barriers of student success. Once identified, Radford University will work to permanently remove these barriers.

“The REALISE project will directly connect Radford University’s existing student success efforts and diversity/equity initiatives to immerse our students in a scientific culture of inquiry, challenge, engagement and support,” Rogers said.

HHMI will award Radford University the $1 million grant over five years. The first installment will commence September 2017.

-submitted by

Mary Hardbarger