NSF Aims to ‘Transform’ STEM Learning With Set of Grants

By Erik W. Robelen — November 23, 2011 3 min read
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We’ve written recently about the U.S. Department of Education’s efforts to fuel innovation in education, but that’s not the only federal agency engaged in this arena. The National Science Foundation recently issued seven grants—worth about $5 million in total—to support research projects intended to “transform” STEM learning.

Work is now getting underway on the set of winning proposals, which include an online “iPuzzle” project to help middle schoolers learn math, a plan to use “green” school buildings as a context for STEM learning, and research on a set of redesigned STEM-focused high schools in North Carolina.

“The intent was to get proposals that were cutting edge ... and involve different models of schooling,” said John Cherniavsky, the acting director of the NSF’s Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings.

The awards were part of a new strand of grantmaking at NSF called Transforming STEM Learning. It reflects a partnership among several NSF programs within the agency’s research on learning division. The grant recipients were selected this summer, Cherniavsky told me, but there was no formal, public announcement, unlike with the recent news release on the federal Investing in Innovation program (dubbed i3) at the Education Department.

A second round of NSF grants will be awarded next year.

Here’s a quick synopsis of the first batch:

Organization: American Association for the Advancement of Science
Amount: $499,000
Project: Transform middle school math and science curriculum through an initiative that leverages the growing existence and interest in environmentally sustainable “green” school buildings as a context and topic for student learning.

Organization: Education Development Center
Grant Amount: $499,000
Project: Develop a model for supporting student engagement in learning math through iPuzzle, an interactive, online “puzzle environment” that could be used in a single networked classroom or on the Web for use at multiple schools using different computing devices and platforms.

Organization: Loyola University of Chicago
Amount: $500,000
Project: Engage high school students in the pursuit of learning science through a blended instructional model that will deeply involve family and community, and that leads to the discovery of environmentally sustainable resources and practices.

Organization: New York Hall of Science
Amount: $500,000
Project: Support the creation and testing of two innovative science games to advance student learning about frictional force and linear motion. The focus is on rigorous, highly motivating, data-collection activities conducted in museum and playground settings, with in-depth data analysis and additional scientific investigation in the classroom.

Organization: Research Triangle Institute
Amount: $2 million
Project: Conduct a study of ten redesigned STEM high schools in North Carolina, with the goal of learning how the creation of innovative STEM learning environments can help motivate students to become active learners with the capacity to think critically and solve real-world problems.

Organization: TERC Inc.
Amount: $500,000
Project: Research and develop a digital gaming environment, called Arcadia: The Next Generation, that attracts and retains a player audience and supports high-quality science learning.

Organization: TERC Inc.
Amount: $500,000
Project: Design and develop an innovative approach to science learning at the secondary level that integrates practices of science and art, with a focus on water-related issues of local and global significance.

To be sure, at a total of $5 million, the set of NSF grants does not have near the firepower of the $150 million reserved for the recent federal i3 awards (which included a number of STEM-focused plans). But it’s an intriguing set of projects.

I should note that earlier this year, as part of a special report, Science Learning Outside the Classroom, I examined in greater depth the NSF’s role in particular in promoting informal science learning. In researching that story, I was struck by the interesting array of activities the science agency has funded in recent years, from a set of exhibits at the Golden Gate Bridge to educate millions of visitors on the science and engineering behind the San Francisco landmark to work in Washington State helping local Girl Scout troop leaders get trained in teaching children about scientific inquiry. The NSF even provided $700,000 for an experimental theater troupe in New York City to produce a musical on climate change and conservation (and in the process, drew the ire of some political conservatives in the blogosphere).

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.