NEWS RELEASE, 09/15/98

Howard Hughes Medical Institute gives UC Berkeley program $1.6 million to improve biology education

By Robert Sanders, Public Affairs

BERKELEY -- The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has awarded the University of California, Berkeley, $1.6 million to continue its efforts to improve undergraduate biology education, in particular through the Biology Scholars Program. The program helps undergraduates from diverse social, cultural and economic backgrounds succeed in the biological sciences.

The four-year grant is one of 58 to be announced Sept. 16 by HHMI. The grants, which total $91.1 million, will help universities around the country strengthen undergraduate science education.

A third of UC Berkeley's $1.6 million will go to the Biology Fellows Program, which provides undergraduates with the financial freedom to engage in scientific research.

The remainder of the grant will go to the Biology Scholars Program, one of the seven members of the Coalition for Excellence and Diversity in Mathematics, Science and Engineering honored last week by the White House with a 1998 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.

The goal of the Biology Scholars Program is to increase the participation and success of students from diverse backgrounds in biology. The program was started in 1992 with funds from HHMI under the direction of Corey Goodman, UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology and an HHMI investigator; Caroline Kane, UC Berkeley adjunct associate professor of molecular and cell biology and chair of the coalition; and John Matsui, PhD, the program director.

"We're dealing with smart students here, but when they get into big courses like introductory chemistry and math, they find themselves in a large impersonal environment that doesn't necessarily provide them with the study groups, role models or peer groups that help others succeed, and they often drop out of the science major," Goodman said. "The Biology Scholars Program helps them set up their own community where they interact with and support one another. They like the program, and they succeed."

Results from the first five years of the program demonstrate how well the concept works. African American and Hispanic students who participated in the Biology Scholars Program graduated with a biology degree at the same rate (60 percent) as Asian and white students who were not in the program and at more than twice the rate (24 percent) of minority students who did not participate in the program.

Asian American and white students who participated in the program also upped their graduation rate to 86 percent.

These results are significant since there was no difference in the high school preparation of students who participated in the Biology Scholars Program versus those who did not, as measured by their Scholastic Aptitude Test scores and high school grade point averages

"These findings suggest that SAT scores and high school GPA, while important, are not the only factors that predict academic success in science," Matsui said. "A variety of additional features of students' backgrounds - social, economic and cultural - significantly influence how they succeed in a large public university like Berkeley."

The scholars program was designed to scale down UC Berkeley by creating a private college environment within the larger public university. The program helped participants become "system smart" - able to access and use campus resources and opportunities - by providing its members with early and consistent access to faculty, campus programs and one another. These are crucial factors in the academic success and satisfaction of all students, Matsui said.

As a result, graduates of the program were more prepared to deal with the critical transitions in their education, such as making high school-to-college adjustments, succeeding in the large, highly competitive introductory science courses, declaring a major and applying to graduate and professional school. The program currently supports more than 350 undergraduates, with some 50 to 60 freshmen entering each year.

"The Biology Scholars Program has provided the campus community with insights about how to increase the academic success of not just women and minorities, but of all students pursuing science degrees at UC Berkeley," Matsui said. "Future studies will focus on how to make the university, as an institution, more accessible for all undergraduates, with a continued emphasis on students from economic, gender and ethnic groups which have been historically underrepresented in science."

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