In the Lead

5 July 2012

Scholars know that one of the best ways to assess the quality and significance of their work is to subject it to peer review. Having your ideas, your writing, or your artwork undergo searing scrutiny and critique by colleagues in your field—whether to get a paper published in a journal or a painting accepted for a juried show—is a genuine hallmark of excellence.

As you would expect, a parallel external review process exists for colleges and universities seeking to demonstrate the quality of their new ideas and programs. Winning grant funding from the most prestigious sources is a difficult feat, and Carleton more than holds its own in this intensely competitive area.

president-poskanzer-0005.jpgIn May Carleton received a four-year $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), described as a “capstone” award, in recognition of the College’s sustained excellence and important contributions to undergraduate science education. This highly coveted award marks the seventh consecutive multiyear grant that the HHMI has funded at Carleton. Only three other colleges (Swarthmore, Smith, and Xavier University of Louisiana) have been successful in getting funded in all seven proposal rounds.

A large team of Carleton faculty members in all the science and math departments worked together for two years on the most recent HHMI grant proposal. The new grant recognizes Carleton’s national leadership role in training future scientists and will help ensure that we continue to protect and deepen that distinctive niche in our academic profile.

Carleton and HHMI recognize that future leaders in science and medicine must be “integrative learners” who are able to make intellectual connections across disciplines, adapt ideas to new situations, and address problems in teams. Our students will benefit from the HHMI grant throughout all of their four years at the College.

Introductory courses in all departments will get students involved in authentic research. They also will have opportunities to work on real-world problems and to teach in the local community, supported by faculty mentors and peers. In a new statistics seminar, students from multiple majors will serve as statistical consultants for community partners. This type of collaboration occurred recently as students in “Plant Ecology” and an upper-level “Topics in Probability and Statistics” seminar worked together to create, distribute, and assess the impact of food and nutrition information provided to Northfield grade school students.

The HHMI grant comes on the heels of a three-year $770,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that is helping Carleton carve out another distinctive niche: becoming a national leader in visual learning. The Visualizing the Liberal Arts (Viz) grant, which began in 2009, will culminate in a national conference to be held at the College in September.

Over the past three years, the Viz grant has funded exhibits, brought speakers to campus, and—most important—helped staff and faculty members explore visual approaches to teaching and learning. We’ve been developing innovative ways to create, interpret, and incorporate visual images, media, and models into the curriculum.

For example, in a math course on the topology and geometry of surfaces, students created three-dimensional models of shapes (later displayed in Gould Library) that demonstrated to visitors the meaning of these mathematical ideas. In an art history course on Japanese theater, students studied the history of Kabuki and Noh plays by looking at films, illustrated books, and woodblock prints of actors in their roles. Four student teams then used software to create virtual exhibitions, placing and lighting objects as they would in the actual space.

The HHMI and Viz funds are just two of many significant grants Carleton has received in the past few years that reflect Carleton’s quality and help keep our College at the forefront of higher education. Continued opportunities to excel stretch out before us and we are eager to pursue those paths.