As long-time readers of my blog may know, I’ve given up on chasing grants (see Sabbatical Plans 2 and Sabbatical Leave Report), but I got sucked into planning to apply for NSF Engineering Education Program and Improving Undergraduate STEM Education/Professional Formation of Engineers’ RED Solicitation NSF 15-607, which would provide a minimum of $1,000,000 spread over 5 years to the lucky winner of the grant lottery for improving engineering education. Because I have refocused my effort since my last sabbatical on improving education, this grant seemed like something worth some effort.
I was a little worried about it not being a lottery, but having an already targeted program that someone at NSF wanted to fund, as it had a very short timeline for putting together a rather complex grant, and somewhat bizarre requirements for the composition of the group applying for it:
The Principal Investigator(s) must be a department chair/head (or equivalent) to establish institutional accountability. Additionally, there must be a RED team that includes (at a minimum) an expert in engineering education or computer science education research, who can ground the research plan in the literature, and a social science expert who can evaluate department dynamics and monitor change processes. The social scientist must have expertise to advise on strategies for developing a culture of change and on strategies for creating meaningful collective ownership of the effort among faculty, students, and staff.
I was first informed of the existence of this program on 2015 Oct 7, by the engineering associate dean for undergraduates. Apparently the deans of engineering schools had been informed of the program on 2015 Oct 5 by NSF, with letters of intent due on 2015 Nov 10, with each institution limited to 2 proposals. I responded with cautious enthusiasm within an hour and a half, outlining what I’d like to see improved in the engineering program generally and why I thought that our Hispanic-Serving Institution was a good fit for the goals of the program to “educate inclusive communities of engineering and computer science students prepared to solve 21st-century challenges.”
I was willing to help write the grant, but I did not want to be the PI—not that I could anyway, as I’m a “Program Chair” but not a “Department Chair”—that means that I have to do all the catalog editing, curriculum revision, and responding to the administration about every bone-headed idea they come up with for education, but I have no resources and no carrots or sticks to get any other faculty to help me.
In my message to the faculty expressing interest, I detailed what I saw as the problems to address in the bioengineering program, some of which I felt were shared by other programs.
Another engineering faculty member (in a different department from mine) was in agreement with me, particularly on one point: “Students spend too much time getting book learning, and not enough time applying their knowledge to design problems.” Our engineering programs have excellent senior capstone courses, but there is not enough design work in the first two years. (Incidentally, this resonates well with a post that just came out today from a community college on the other side of the country.)
So within 2 hours of the associate dean asking if anyone was interested, the two of us agreed to work on it and see what we could come up with. We both have heavy teaching loads this quarter, and he was working on several research proposals, so we did not manage to get together to talk for another nine days (Oct 16). We’d both done a fair amount of thinking independently before then, so we had a very productive meeting for an hour or two, finding that we had very similar ideas about the goals and complementary ideas about how to achieve them.
I got a couple of pages of notes out of that meeting: which courses needed to be expanded, which freshman and sophomore courses could feasibly have a greater design component, and how we could create and push courses back into the high schools to raise awareness of engineering among applicants (the other faculty member had already taught and recorded a summer course on robotics for high-school students that could be improved and adapted to be a “course-in-a-box” that could be taught by interested but not expert high-school teachers, and I would like to push my applied electronics course down to advanced high school level, though that would require some massive book rewrites).
The basic theme of our ideas was pretty straightforward (quoting from my notes on the Friday meeting):
The theme of the proposal is expanding hands-on project-based learning particularly in the majors Robotics Engineering, Computer Engineering, and Bioengineering (bioelectronics and assistive technology:motor concentrations). Project-based learning has a good track record for increasing participation by women and under-represented minorities .
The key concepts for the course and curriculum design are the following
- System thinking: breaking into subproblems and well-defined interfaces
- Trade-offs: most design decisions involve trading off one desirable feature for another
- Documentation: the design needs to be thoroughly described in order to be maintainable or duplicable.
We concentrated on a part of the engineering program that already had a pretty good design component, trying to build from strength rather than trying to foment a revolution in programs that had very little design until the senior year. Given the very short timeline (3.5 weeks to get a team together for the letter of intent), we did not think it wise to go for something unachievable, but rather to make a pretty good program exemplary.
Our next step was to see whether we could get a team together by the Nov 10 deadline for the letter of intent, so I started cold-calling (well, e-mailing) social scientists and education researchers on campus, trying to find people who would be suitable and interested. I’m not naturally a networker—I don’t remember people’s names or faces, and I don’t often go to social events where I run into new people, so I was having to rely on what I could find on the UCSC web pages and asking everyone for recommendations of whom to ask. I put in a fair amount of time looking through web pages and sending e-mail to strangers, asking for help.
Two weeks later (Oct 30), I managed to present the ideas of the proposal to a group consisting of one psychologist, three education researchers (one via a Skype connection that kept failing), and an EE teaching professor (who happened to be in the process of trying to improve the core EE course in the direction we were trying to move things). The presentation must have seemed a bit bizarre to them, as it was the closest class day to Halloween, and I was dressed in a 15th-century houppelande, having just come from teaching my class.
After describing what we were trying to do and some lively discussion where the education researchers tried to figure out what NSF meant by their rather unusual team composition (not like any of the education research grants that they had ever participated in), I left with the EE professor eager to join the grant and the others saying they’d let me know. By the next week, the psychologist (Nov 2) and the two best-fit education researchers (Nov 6) had agreed to join the team.
I had also had asked the dean’s office about the administrative support that had been promised in the original call for faculty interest, and got a rather minimal response (amounting to no more than the usual budget-writing support that tiniest research grants get—no grant writing support at all).
In the meantime (Nov. 5), another hurdle had arisen: the relevant department chair was not willing to be PI. Since we now had faculty from three different departments leading the grant, we tried convincing the dean to be the PI, but he’s stepping down at the end of the year, and did not feel that he could commit the incoming dean to whatever we were planning (Nov 9). We made one more last-minute appeal to the department chair to let us file the letter of intent by the end of the day Nov 10, with the department chair still having veto power on submitting the final grant proposal, but were turned down.
So we’re not even getting a shot at the $1–2M lottery. I suspect that many places that could have put together reasonable proposals will have had similar unsuccessful flurries of activity leading to not even being able to submit a letter of intent—the NSF request for proposals seemed deliberately structured to suppress applicants, leading me to suspect that there was a favored program somewhere that this whole charade had been set up to fund, or perhaps a few institutions with grant-writing machines already cranked up and ready to spew out whatever boilerplate NSF wanted.
The three of us faculty will go ahead and do what we can (without resources) to improve pedagogy in the engineering school, but the whole process has left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. I’m feeling that not only did NSF not want proposals from us, but that the engineering administration didn’t want us applying for funding (which seems completely out of character for this university’s administration).
I think it is unlikely that I’ll go through that much effort again, just to be told that we can’t even file a letter of intent. I’ve always hated grant writing, and I’d sworn off of research-grant writing a couple years ago as a completely unproductive use of my time. Now it looks like I might swear off writing grant proposals for improving teaching also, as it seems to be even more painful and even less productive.
I would have been better off putting in the time revising another chapter of my book—at least there I can see progress when I can the time to work on it.