The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has awarded FIU $1 million to expand its unique approach to physics education across the physical sciences.
Physics students at FIU don’t just read about electricity. They use magnets to generate voltage and study it. They don’t take notes about energy. They drop a dodgeball on the floor to substantiate it. They don’t memorize the momentum equation. They collide cars and collect data to understand it. This method of teaching is called Modeling Instruction.
“Students are given the opportunity to learn science by being scientists,” said Physics Professor Laird Kramer. “Instead of lecturing at students, we want them to be scientific about their education. Instead of telling us what they read in a book, we expect them to show us evidence of what they’ve learned.”
The HHMI grant is designed to help universities develop creative, research-based courses, give students more hands-on experiences in lab settings and improve science teaching. Nearly 200 research universities were invited to apply for grants this year; 50 were awarded. The $1 million grant is the first HHMI grant ever awarded to FIU.
For more than eight years, the Department of Physics has used Modeling Instruction to engage students. As a result, the number of physics majors has more than quadrupled, while student learning also has improved significantly. With the HHMI grant, the College of Arts & Sciences will expand the Modeling Instruction concept to introductory biology and chemistry.
FIU is one of the top producers in the nation of science graduates from underrepresented minority groups. At FIU, for example, women make up approximately 40 percent of physics degrees, a group that traditionally accounts for 20 percent.
“FIU has a very diverse population and we are always looking for new teaching methods that engage all students,” said College of Arts & Sciences Dean Kenneth G. Furton. “This is an exciting opportunity to take a program we know works and expand it to other departments.”