Who Wants to Be a Millionaire Teacher?

Maybe money can't buy happiness. But the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) is hoping that it can buy a better science education for thousands of U.S. undergraduates.

Today HHMI announced plans to give $1 million over 4 years to each of 20 faculty members at top-notch research universities whose commitment to teaching students matches their thirst for new knowledge. "They will be active, respected scientists, at universities that traditionally have not held teaching up to the same type of rewards and esteem" as doing research, says Peter Bruns, HHMI's vice president for grants and special programs. "We want to increase the value of those good people who are already making an effort to improve undergraduate education."

Hughes has invited 84 research-intensive universities to nominate up to two candidates for the awards, believed to be the largest of their kind. The grants can be used for a variety of purposes, from inviting undergrads into the lab to developing new course materials. In terms of discipline, location, and scientific achievement, the winners are likely to resemble HHMI investigators, a group of 340 well-funded biomedical researchers who Bruns hopes will interact with the new HHMI professors "and give us ideas on what else we should be doing" in undergraduate education. Since 1988, Hughes has given $154 million to 225 biology departments around the country to improve the undergraduate curriculum and upgrade labs.

"It's a grand experiment," says molecular biologist Edward Cox, who runs a Hughes-funded summer research program for undergraduates at Princeton University. Cox predicts that the hardest part will be "finding people with the right blend of an active research program and high-quality teaching skills." He calls it a "big challenge, but one well worth taking on."

Norman Fortenberry, who directs undergraduate programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF), welcomes the attention to "an area of great need." Because students have been flocking to the life sciences recently, departments have felt less pressure to improve their pedagogy and course offerings, he observes. Coincidentally, later this month NSF hopes to name its first six "distinguished teaching scholars," a new 4-year, $300,000 award that, unlike the Hughes professors, is open to faculty across all institutions and all fields of science and engineering funded by NSF.

Related site

HHMI press release; includes a list of the 84 invited institutions