NSF Commits $20 Million to ‘Science of Learning’ Projects

By David J. Hoff — May 28, 2003 2 min read

The National Science Foundation is planning a 10-year effort to underwrite research to unlock the secrets of how people learn and how to put those lessons into practice.

More information is available from the National Science Foundation.

The independent federal agency announced this month that it is seeking applications for up to 30 projects that will “extend the frontiers of knowledge on learning.” The NSF is committed to spending $20 million on the projects over the next two years, but is hoping to expand the endeavor in future years, according to one of the program officers heading the initiative.

“This is going to push the sciences of learning in a big way to bring to bear what they can tell us [about] how people learn,” said Steven J. Breckler, the agency’s program director for behavioral and cognitive sciences. That division is coordinating the enterprise along with seven other divisions of the Arlington, Va.-based NSF.

Cognitive scientists, neurologists, and education researchers have made significant headway in recent decades in understanding how people learn new information, form conceptual understanding of it, and begin to apply it in real-life situations. Four years ago, the National Research Council published an exhaustive summary of learning research with suggestions on how its findings could alter classroom practice. (“Reading-Achievement Program Is Off to a Quiet Start,” Jan. 13, 1999.)

Mr. Breckler said the science foundation expects this latest program to make strides in the research, as well as put current and new findings into use in schools and other real-life situations.

All Sizes

The foundation plans to make between three and five major grants and another 20 or so smaller ones.

The large grants will support efforts to form what the NSF calls Science of Learning Centers—or SLCs. Each center will receive between $3 million and $5 million a year to conduct multidisciplinary research that is expected to further the knowledge base on how people learn. The centers also will work to ensure the research has an impact. Those projects can receive funding for up to 10 years.

Mr. Breckler said the centers’ researchers, to win funding, will be required to work with practitioners in the field. For example, a group of researchers may work with a school district to test certain methods of teaching a particular subject, he said, or the group could help a textbook publisher write a new curriculum.

The smaller projects—called “catalysts"—will receive grants for a year or two to examine narrow topics in the learning sciences. Recipients will be expected to organize workshops and conferences where their research can be debated by others in the field.

Catalysts may be in a position to receive larger grants to become centers when the foundation adds new ones in future years, Mr. Breckler said.

Proposals under the catalyst program are due to the NSF Aug. 5, and for research centers Sept. 17.