The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a private foundation that supports science, research and education, recently awarded UCSB 1.5 million dollars to create a learning program with active student-instructor interaction for biology majors.

The award will fund a program called BioMentors, which is designed to increase the success and retention of students in biology-oriented majors. The new program will supplement the efforts of the existing HHMI-UCSB Undergraduate Science Education Program. The program will feature peer-mentors for first-year pre-biology majors, small discussion classes for second-year introductory biology students and, in the process, train faculty in the biology department how to teach more interactively.

According to David Asai, senior program director of science education at HHMI, UCSB is one of the 37 universities selected for the grant, out of 170 that submitted proposals.

“UCSB’s award is both unique in that it is crafted to fit UCSB and also part of the larger effort to change the way this nation’s undergraduates learn science,” Asai said.

Asai said the award reflects the university’s high potential to enhance science education.

“It’s about what we think UCSB will be able to achieve over the next five years,” Asai said. “It’s about the commitment of the UCSB community — students, faculty and administration — to make undergraduate science education even better at UCSB.”

According to Dean of Science Pierre Wiltzius, the BioMentors program is an experiment aimed to test the educational effectiveness of the program’s goals to increase interaction between students and teachers.

“This is an experiment and we hope that the students, teaching assistants and faculty will learn and guide us to improve learning strategies,” Wiltzius said.

Wiltzius said the university wrote the grant proposal in an attempt to lower the dropout rate from the pre-biology major by encouraging work in smaller groups.

“The grant allows us to try new bold ideas in group teaching and learning,” Wiltzius said. “It becomes increasingly evident that many students learn best in peer groups.”

Rolf Christoffersen, professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology and co-director of the UCSB-HHMI program, said students pursuing science degrees must be prepared to take on the challenges of the future.

“Science and technology changes rapidly and that change is accelerating, so our students need to be life-long learners to solve problems that we can’t imagine, using technology that hasn’t been invented yet,” Christoffersen said.

Asai said despite the inevitable difficulties, he thinks the program will be well worth the effort.

“As with other things that are worth pursuing, I expect that implementing UCSB’s program will not be without challenges,” Asai said. “Indeed, if it were easy, I would be concerned that the goals were not aspirational.”

Third-year pharmacology major Thomas Lee said two obstacles he faced in pursuing biology were the overwhelmingly large class sizes and course loads.

“It was difficult for me to find applications for all the details that we have to learn, especially in the Gen Bio series,” Lee said.

Third-year cell and developmental biology major Jasper Cheng said he believes the structure of a small class will greatly improve students’ capability to learn and encourage them to complete the major.

“With the proposed active learning program, I believe students will be able to stimulate the natural urge to learn while simultaneously developing stronger relationships with professors and peers,” Cheng said.

Cheng said it was difficult to grasp all the information presented in classes of 700 to 1,000 students.

“If I had any questions from lecture, which usually covered an overwhelming chunk of material, there was no way for me to get an answer immediately outside of lecture,” Cheng said. “This made it difficult to go in depth with the material.”

According to Cheng, his lecture classes are also problematic because they are based on one-way interactions between instructor and students, with the instructor delivering information for students to memorize.

Cheng said the BioMentors program is a good solution because it brings students and teachers closer.

“I believe this will be a very beneficial change for upcoming students because this creates a much more intimate environment between students and instructors,” Cheng said.