College awarded $300,000 Congressional appropriation grant for science

March 3, 2011
Contact: Karen Eldridge, Director of Communications
865-981-8207; karen.eldridge@maryvillecollege.edu

New equipment is going into laboratories inside Maryville College’s Sutton Science Center, faculty and students are planning summer internships in research training, and Dr. Ben Cash is investigating vehicles that will get faculty and students to wetlands, fields, forests and streams.

The catalyst for elevated activity in the College’s Natural Science Division is a recent $300,000 grant from the United States Department of Education. With it, the College is starting a new Undergraduate Science Education and Research Institute.

“This grant will enable us to do what we often don’t have many resources to do, and that’s getting outside the classroom and being involved in real projects,” said Cash, chair of the College’s Natural Sciences Division and professor of biology. “Getting into the field is probably the most important part of training scientists. It’s fundamental.”

Cash is project director for the institute and was instrumental in shaping its vision.

He said that ultimately, he and his colleagues in biology, chemistry and physics want to attract – and then prepare – more talented students for professional lives as scientists.

“The National Academy of Sciences issued a report in 2007 in which scholars expressed their deep concern for the current state of basic science and science education in the United States,” Cash said. “Among the academy’s solution was an increased emphasis on basic research itself and on initiatives to attract and train young scientists more effectively than what presently occurs.”

Hearing that Congress was appropriating money for science education through the Department of Education’s Funding for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE) office, Cash began working with Brandon Bruce, director of gifts and grants, on a grant proposal.

“I thought we were uniquely positioned to answer to this call for bold steps in science education,” Cash said, explaining that hands-on science and faculty-student collaborations were already distinguished features of his division because of the College’s Senior Study requirement, which calls for all students to complete a two-semester research and writing project guided by a faculty supervisor before graduating.

“Maryville College has been part of the United States’ contribution to educating the world’s best scientists for almost 200 years, and it will continue to be,” the professor said. “But while our program had a solid foundation, we recognized that we had deficiencies in several areas that grant funding could help with.”

Of the $300,000 that the College has been approved for, roughly half will go toward stipends for students engaged in summer internships and salaries for faculty members who are mentoring students in research-training projects centered at Maryville College and remote locations.

Remaining funds will support the purchase of modern teaching and research equipment (including up-to-date support equipment, spectrophotometers and data-acquisition systems) and vehicles and gear that address the mobility challenges of field research.

“There are limited resources available at the College in the form of vehicles, and departmental budgets do no extend to travel funds,” Cash explained. “With concentrated resources for mobility, faculty and students will be able to travel to project objectives locally or remotely.”

Specifically, Cash is hoping to add one sport utility vehicle to the division’s inventory, along with a trailer, canoe, all-terrain vehicle and utility vehicle.

This summer, the project director expects 10 to 12 students and four to five faculty members to be participating in the institute. Faculty are currently making arrangements for research training projects in cell biology and physics that will be conducted on campus, materials science studies that will be the focus at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and snake physiology and genetics observations at the University of Georgia Marine Institute at Sapelo Island.

Students will receive at least two hours practicum credit for their involvement. As part of the grant agreement, they are required to present their project outcomes at regional or national science meetings and also lead educational seminars about their experiences in classroom settings.

Maryville College President Dr. Tom Bogart said experiential education was a vital component of the College’s core curriculum and he was pleased that the College had secured the FIPSE funding.

“Some internship opportunities do not provide salaries for students, which make them prohibitive for our students who are relying on earning money to support their education,” he explained. “Grant funding can help students complete important work – work that integrates academic analysis and professional practice – rather than forcing them to choose between a paying job and an unpaid research position.

“On behalf of Maryville College, I thank legislators who supported the appropriations bill that made this funding available, especially Congressman John J. Duncan, Jr., who advocated strongly for our Undergraduate Science Education and Research Institute,” the president added.

Duncan said he was happy to support the College’s proposal.

“Maryville College is one of the finest educational institutions in this nation, and I am so pleased the school was able to secure this grant,” the congressman said. “Investment in science is more important than ever, and this funding will ensure that Maryville College continues to attract and retain top students.”

The FIPSE grant is the second major award secured by the Natural Sciences Division in as many years. Last year, the College was chosen to be the administrator of a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant valued at $440,000 for three years. That money is being used to fund yeast cell research.