UA's Impey Given $1M Grant to Improve Science Education for Undergrads

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Eric Swedlund for University Relations - Communications June 30, 2014

UA astronomy professor Chris Impey is the first from the UA and the first astronomer to be named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor.

Chris Impey (Photo by Jacob Chinn/UA Alumni Association)

Chris Impey (Photo by Jacob Chinn/UA Alumni Association)

University of Arizona astronomy professor Chris Impey on Monday was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor, an award that comes with $1 million to support his efforts to improve online science education for undergraduates.

Impey, a University Distinguished Professor and deputy head of the UA Department of Astronomy, is the first HHMI professor from the UA and the first astronomer to be selected.

"Chris not only leads a world-class astrophysical research program, he is a pioneer in bringing new methods and techniques into the teaching of science," said Buell Jannuzi, head of the astronomy department and director of the UA Steward Observatory.

A total of 15 educators were chosen to receive the five-year grant "to create activities that integrate their research with student learning in ways that enhance undergraduate students' understanding of science," according to the institute.

"Exceptional teachers have a lasting impact on students," said HHMI President Robert Tjian. "These scientists are at the top of their respective fields and they bring the same creativity and rigor to science education that they bring to their research."

Impey, who came to the UA in 1986, is known as a pioneer in the use of instructional technology for teaching science to undergraduate nonscience majors.  

"The award is attractive because the Howard Hughes Medical Institute funds people rather than specific ideas. It's a different paradigm than the National Science Foundation or NASA," Impey said.

"With a five-year award, and the kind of latitude that HHMI gives to pursue ideas, it's exciting because there's an opportunity to experiment," he said, noting that other grants come with a narrow scope that doesn't leave room for experimentation.

With the HHMI funding, Impey will design and implement an online course in introductory astronomy, using the learner-centered instruction techniques and innovations he has tested in the classroom.

"The core of the project is to do a standard university undergraduate course for nonscience majors and take it fully into the online arena, while using the best pedagogy," he said. "The heart of the challenge is to include the engagement, interaction and learning necessary to make it a good experience rather than a pale shadow of a face-to-face class."

Impey long ago moved past the standard lecture style in favor of engaging his students with a range of interactive methods: labs, data-rich activities, Socratic dialogs, writing portfolios, debates, creative projects and even social media.

"If you just teleported around the country and sat in on introductory science courses for nonscience majors, you'd mostly see lecturing. You'd see occasional discussions, but you mostly see very traditional instruction, most of it one directional from the instructor to students," Impey said.

In his introductory astronomy course, Impey spends just a quarter of class time lecturing. The bulk is spent integrating discussions with small group work and using technology to foster student interaction.

"Learner-centered pedagogy is still not broadly used even though there's data that supports it," he said. "When students are asked or required to be more participatory in their education, there's some resistance. But once you're seen the difference it's hard to go back."

The challenge increases when the approach is taken online, he said.

"It's disembodied. It's remote. How can you truly use all the elements in learner-centered education when you go online?" he said.

With the HHMI grant, his focus will be on collecting data to track gains in learning.

"This is about demonstrating that you've improved the student experience," said Impey, who already is heavily involved in online teaching, leading a free massive open online course, or MOOC, that has drawn more than 14,000 students from around the world.

Impey already has taken an innovative and creative approach to teaching science in new and more effective ways, Jannuzi said. 

"I'm confident Chris, with the help of the support provided by HHMI, will make great progress in developing the pedagogy required to make online learning an effective, learner-centered method of teaching science," he said. 

The winner of 11 teaching awards, Impey is a past vice president of the American Astronomical Society and has been an NSF Distinguished Teaching Scholar and the Carnegie Council's Arizona Professor of the Year. His research has been supported by $18 million in grants from NASA and the NSF, and he has had 24 projects given time on astronomy's premier research facility, the Hubble Space Telescope. 

"Science faculty members who can successfully advance their research and teaching goals through creative integration of the two are both a valued asset to their departments and important models for their colleagues," said Sean B. Carroll, vice president for science education at HHMI.

Other projects that have been funded through the HHMI program since it began in 2002 have introduced innovative approaches for teaching science in the classroom, expanded and enhanced student research opportunities, developed new educational resources, and implemented novel mentoring programs for student support.

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