This post is aimed at people who are considering applying for a CAREER award from the US National Science Foundation. For those who aren’t familiar, these awards are aimed at pre-tenure faculty. The key ways they differ from regular grants are: 1. they are restricted to pre-tenure faculty, 2. they are for five years instead of three, and 3. they include both a research component (like typical grants) as well as an education component (which, to a first approximation, is sort of like a broader impacts section on steroids). I’m focusing on the education component here. I am writing this based on experience applying for one (which included reading the CAREER proposals that had been written by a lot of different people), talking with people who applied for them about what worked and didn’t work, reviewing CAREER proposals, and talking with others who’ve reviewed CAREER proposals about what generally works and doesn’t work. With a CAREER proposal, if you don’t do a good job with the science part and the education part, you won’t get funded. I’m hoping this post helps people as they work on the education component.
As with any proposal, it is immensely valuable to get examples from people who’ve applied. Clearly it’s good to read proposals that were successful, but it also helps to read ones that were not, especially if the person is willing to share reviews, too. Knowing what doesn’t work can be as important as knowing what does.
In my opinion, the following things are needed to have a compelling education component of a CAREER proposal:
1. Focus on a particular subset of educational activities. Don’t try to do all the possible broader impacts that NSF lists! Choose 1-2 areas that you particularly care about and focus in on those. In my case, I focused on topics related to underrepresented groups in science. I had several different activities, but they all centered on that theme.
2. Convince the reviewer that what you’re focusing on is important and that what you’re proposing to do to address that problem really will address it. Cite your methods/approaches in this section of the proposal the same way that you would the methods in the regular part of the proposal. For example, if you are proposing to develop hands-on activities for middle school kids to try to help them stay interesting in science, show (with citations) why hands-on activities are particularly valuable, and why it makes sense to focus on middle school kids.
3. Convince the reviewer that you can do the proposed work. Don’t just say that you will recruit minority students, or that you will set up a summer program focused on math-bio, or whatever. Prove you can do it. It’s the same as with the regular part of the proposal: preliminary results help convince the reviewers that you can pull it off. Yes, this means that you need to do some of the work ahead of time, before you know whether you will be funded. But, in my opinion, that is time well-invested, in part because it increases the odds that you will be funded. And, if you take my advice from point 1 above (about choosing something you particularly care about), hopefully you’ll find that you enjoy the time you invest in this.
4. Take advantage of existing infrastructure at your university. Lots of places have units devoted to helping with teaching and outreach activities. Maybe they already have an existing camp in place that you can work with. Maybe they can provide you with references related to pedagogy. Maybe they can help you design ways to assess whether your approach is working. Whatever it is, take advantage of these resources. At Georgia Tech, I established my own links with a camp at Piedmont Park (located in Midtown Atlanta near Georgia Tech), and I also took advantage of the help from CEISMC, which is Georgia Tech’s Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics, and Computing; they helped me add in realistic assessment tools.
5. Include a means of assessing the success of your education component. For example, if you are going to design an educational activity for K-12 students, you should assess whether that activity is an effective means of achieving your educational goals. In my case, as I said above, I relied on help from educational experts (from CEISMC) for developing those assessments.
6. Similar to a regular proposal, if someone’s help is essential to the success of the education component, get a letter from them. In my case, I included letters from the person who runs the camp at Piedmont Park, a letter from someone at CEISMC who could help me with assessments, and a letter from a colleague at Spelman College who helped me recruit Spelman students to work in my lab.
7. Devote funds to the education component: Another way to show that you are serious about the education component is to include funds in your budget to support it. There are lots of things you could budget funds for: supporting students and/or K-12 teachers, buying supplies for classrooms or camps, etc.
Of course, all of the above is just my opinion on what makes for a compelling education component of a CAREER proposal. If you disagree (or agree), please let me know in the comments!
UPDATE: In the comments, Ethan White pointed out something very important that I forgot to include in this post. It’s so important, that I will make it point 8:
8. The research and teaching components should be integrated with one another. Having a great education component that is totally unrelated to the research component will be seen as a major weakness. Reviewers will want to see synergy between the components (and are asked to consider that when reviewing CAREER proposals.)