NSF Calls for Multidisciplinary Education Research

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 11, 2013 2 min read
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Happy Brain Awareness Week!

Education watchers have been finding in fields like cognitive and neuroscience new perspectives on how children learn and how their environments shape that learning, but researchers in different fields often remain siloed. This month, the National Science Foundation launched an effort to make the science of learning and education more cohesive—and hopefully more comprehensible to educators in the field.

Last week, NSF issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to researchers in a wide array of fields—social, behavioral and economics, biology, computer science and engineering, education and human resources, and mathematics and physical sciences—calling for multidisciplinary projects “with the potential to transform neuroscience and cognitive science” in areas like decision-making, communication, and adapting to new environments.

“Education is not a monolithic field; it’s many, many areas studying the same phenomenon,” said Gregg E. Solomon, NSF program director, and one of the letter’s writers. “You can study how people learn physics in a physics department, a cognitive science department, a neuroscience department. Various education phenomena involve functions of really fundamental processes of learning and how the brain processes information,” he said, but cautioned, “As you move from cellular to cognitive to behavioral level, these are huge jumps, and it’s not always so clear” how findings in one level apply to others.

Without more multidisciplinary studies, it’s easy for people to incorrectly extrapolate findings in one field to a different one. (Think of the persistence of neuroscience myths about learning.) “The science is really right for this kind of integration, and the nation is ready and calling for it,” Solomon said.

A “dear colleague” letter is not so much a new grant proposal as a change in priorities for existing funding streams, similar to an Institute of Education Sciences notice of research priorities. NSF already has grant programs that support research in all of these areas, but it can be difficult to place a collaboration among researchers in disparate fields, according to Gregg E. Solomon, NSF program director and one of the letter’s writers.

“It’s a way to move the field,” Solomon said. “We’re in many ways the conduit through which the field talks to the field. It’s risky to do work across disciplines; you don’t know whether the project is going to work. Where are you going to publish it? People might not get it. Having a ‘dear colleague’ letter out there is like having a stamp on your forehead saying yes, this endeavor is valued.”

The agency is accepting proposals under the letter through June 1, and Solomon said he expects projects to be announced within six months, though NSF has not set the total number of dollars or projects to be dedicated.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.