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Decoding National Science Foundation STEM Grants

It’s no secret that the National Science Foundation (NSF) concerns itself with awarding grant opportunities related to STEM endeavors.

However, often times we only consider cutting-edge, high-level research, or sub-field specific grants. Yet, there also exists a plethora of fellowship opportunities that are available to individual researchers.

Often forgotten are those grants which can be utilized as a vehicle to support the effectiveness of STEM learning for people of all ages in all settings - including K-12 education.

Open now are four such education-oriented programs: Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST), STEM+ Computing Partnerships (STEM+C), Discovery Research PreK-12 (DRK-12), and Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL).

These grants, from the NSF's Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings (DRL) in the Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR), aim to improve STEM education through field-based activities. They seek to translate previously completed foundational and early stage research to further research, design, development, and implementation of STEM learning in various environments.

First, a look at the commonalities shared between these grants. As previously mentioned, all of these opportunities aim to improve STEM education through examining field-tested models, pedagogies, tools, techniques, curricula, strategies, etc.

Each of the four grants requires that the projects be guided by a specific research question. Further, each opportunity necessitates that proposals submitted include relevant research and ultimately contributes to the research knowledge-base.

Finally, embedded in all the grants is a desire to broaden STEM field participation for underrepresented populations (e.g. women, racial and ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities, etc.). While not expressly required, proposals that involve engaging diverse sets of learners are strongly encouraged.

From here on, each of the four programs—ITEST, STEM+C, DRK-12, and AISL—grows increasingly unique.

Let us first begin with the ITEST grant. According to the program solicitation, ITEST proposals "support the development, implementation, and spread of innovative strategies that engage students in experiences that: 1 -increase student awareness of STEM and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) careers; 2- motivate students to pursue the education to participate in those careers; and 3- provide students with technology-rich experiences that develop their knowledge of related content and skills needed to enter the STEM workforce.”

This opportunity allows applicants to center on formal and informal learning environments for STEM students ranging from grades PreK through 12.

Additionally, projects may involve a single grade of students, or multiple grades of students as the subjects of focus.

Proposed projects may also include engaging mentors, teachers, other education professionals, and adult volunteers. Moreover, ITEST projects are open to education efforts in any one or more of the STEM sub-fields.

In order to effectively examine the newly developed learning strategies or those in need of further testing and development, a partnership between a Higher Education Institution and a K-12 District is strongly encouraged in addition to partnerships involving local business or industries.

The second grant, STEM+C, is exclusively concerned with examining STEM learning within formal education settings (i.e. school).

Like ITEST, projects can involve a single grade of students, or multiple grades of students as the subjects of focus. Also similar to ITEST, STEM+C encourages partnerships between K-12 Districts and Higher Education Intuitions, along with other entities.

Unlike ITEST, however, STEM+C is an opportunity which requires proposals to consider a multidisciplinary approach - requiring collaboration amongst the STEM sub-fields rather than honing in on just one discipline.

This is because the STEM+C grant was chiefly created in order to fund the integration of computing into traditional STEM disciplinary learning of K-12 students.

Interestingly enough, this opportunity also affords applicants the option to propose projects which would involve teachers in professional development activities.

Another opportunity, focusing exclusively on formal education settings for STEM learning is the DRK-12 Grant.

Akin to ITEST and STEM+C, DRK-12 projects can involve a single grade of students, or multiple grades of students as the subjects of focus.

Unlike the previously discussed grant opportunities, DRK-12 grants fund projects that wish to research the STEM learning process itself in addition to the development of subsequent STEM learning models.

This grant centers its efforts on understanding how to develop students 21st century skills by thoroughly exploring STEM teaching, learning, and assessment. As such, proposed projects under DRK-12 have the ability to examine learning within any one, or more, STEM sub-field. They may also engage students, teachers, or both as the subjects of study.

Finally, much like the STEM+C grant, DRK-12 grants encourage partnerships between K-12 Districts and Higher Education Intuitions.

Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) is dissimilar from all of the aforementioned opportunities in that - as the name suggests - projects should center exclusively on informal learning settings: zoos, aquaria, planetariums, nature centers, parks, libraries, out of school time activities, science communication, radio/television/film, Maker initiatives, online interactions, games, and other such environments.

This is the only opportunity out of this suite that also is interested in STEM learners of all ages, education, and professional levels - be they STEM professional audiences or the general public.

Often, however, we see this grant utilized to explore how learners make bridges between what is learned in one setting and the next - particularly at the K-12 level.

The AISL grant seeks proposals for new approaches and ways of understanding the design and development of STEM learning.

Similar to ITEST and DRK-12, AISL projects are not limited to any one sub-field within the STEM discipline; proposals may examine one or more area. Additionally, given the breadth of target audiences and topics covered by this grant, partnerships among multiple entities are quite common.

Now, this is by no means an exhaustive list of NSF funded opportunities for STEM education. In fact, within the DRL, there are two other grants - Advance Technological Education (ATE) and EHR Core Research – but, you'll understand if we save those for another day!

The four grants that we've covered - ITEST, STEM+C, DRK-12, and AISL - are all open now and accepting applications, so I urge you to take a few minutes and see the Program Snapshot sections of this issue of Funded (pages 4, 7, 11, and 15) for more information about each of these opportunities.

A final note: Despite a desire to also further STEM education initiatives, remember that these are research grant opportunities first and foremost. However, you certainly shouldn't let the word research dissuade you! Most grant opportunities require some level of intentionality (i.e. a logic model) behind the project design, an evaluation of the project, and reporting of the projects outcomes or findings.

The key difference between those foundation and state funded opportunities and the previously discussed NSF grants is that the NSF is challenging you—as an applicant—to a higher standard of rigor! So, whether you’re an old pro or a new-comer to the land of grants, this suite of opportunities is an excellent way to dive head first and gain some new experience!