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Rice Takes Project-Based Learning to Lower Level STEM Classes

Rice University is using a new $1.9 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to apply inquiry-based strategies to introductory science courses to help encourage freshman undergraduates pursuing STEM-related majors.

The grant, part of a $60 million effort by HHMI to reduce the attrition rate of students majoring in science fields, will introduce hands-on, project-based learning techniques to lower level courses in biology, chemistry, and bioengineering.

The program is modeled on Rice’s successful global health program, Beyond Traditional Borders, which lets students work together to create practical solutions to real-world health challenges. The university estimates that within four years of the program’s founding more than 10 percent of undergrads had taken at least one BTB course.

"We've found that STEM attrition rates are significantly lower among our global health students," said Rebecca Richards-Kortum, the university’s bioengineering chair, and the grant’s principal investigator, in a statement. "In fact, the program actually spurs some non-STEM students to change their majors to a STEM field."

Richards-Kortum will help lead a team of 25 Rice faculty to systematically apply the framework of the BTB model to undergraduate education throughout Rice's Wiess School of Natural Sciences and George R. Brown School of Engineering.

"We plan to implement a series of project-based STEM courses for students intending to major in three large degree programs -- chemistry, bioengineering, and biochemistry and cell biology -- that together account for about 40 percent of all STEM degree recipients at Rice," said Janet Braam, Wiess Professor and chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology.

According to Braam and Richards-Kortum, the overall goal is to increase STEM graduation rates by 10 percent in engineering and 15 percent in science and to help close a noted gap in the sciences among underrepresented minorities.

About the Author

Stephen Noonoo is a contributing editor. He is on Twitter @stephenoonoo.

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