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Drafting a successful proposal for grant funding

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The National Science Foundation (NSF) wants more community colleges to apply for grants to support innovation in undergraduate education, which is not something two-year colleges are accustomed to doing. But David Brown, a chemistry professor at Southwestern College (California), is helping interested colleges navigate the application terrain.
 
In fact, Brown received an NSF grant specifically to help other community colleges craft convincing proposals to enhance undergraduate education in chemistry, tapping his own experience in securing research grants from the agency.
 
NSF receives hundreds of proposals for grant opportunities, but a disproportionately lower number of grants—especially for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)—are awarded to community colleges. That’s primarily because two-year colleges are not accustomed to writing proposals for grants to support innovation in STEM education, unlike their counterparts at four-year institutions, Brown said.
 
One of Brown’s goals is to increase the quality of proposals from two-year colleges that are applying for grants through NSF’s Transforming Undergraduate Education in STEM (TUES), formerly called the Course, Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) program. TUES, which is open to all types of educational institutions that serve undergraduates, supports efforts to conduct research in undergraduate STEM education, create new learning materials and teaching strategies, develop faculty expertise, implement educational innovations and assess student achievement.
 
TUES supports three types of projects. The first program—Type 1—would be the best fit for community colleges new to submitting proposals, as the next two types focus on proposals that typically build off the first project.
 
TUES can serve as a building block to develop a comprehensive program, Brown said. He noted that when he received an NSF grant through the program several years ago, it allowed him to buy equipment for his college’s chemistry program. That allowed him to later secure more funding to develop a technician education program through NSF’s Advanced Technological Education program, which also led to opening doors to engaging his students in undergraduate research.
 
“It’s a seed program,” Brown said.
 
With his current TUES grant, Brown worked with 15 community college chemists in helping them develop their proposals for TUES grants. He detailed the key aspects of writing grant proposals, including background research, citing references and pitching why the research is needed and the goals and objectives of the project.
 
What proposal reviewers look for Brown said reviewers for NSF look at whether proposals fulfill two major areas:  intellectual merit (how good is the idea and can it be carried out) and broad impact (how would it affect or serve various populations, such as under-represented groups in the field, including minorities and women, as well as society, in general).
 
A good proposal must address these areas, he said.
 
Brown learned a lot when he served as an NSF reviewer and met with other reviewers to discuss and select projects. The group talked about the strengths and weaknesses of submitted proposals, and it was particularly interesting to hear what grabbed reviewers’ attention, Brown said.
 
“You have to get into the psyche of the reviewer and address those issues the best you can,” Brown said.
 
A primary weakness of many proposals is poor citation of references. Reviewers look closely at how well proposals cite previous works and how projects can build on them, Brown said. Providing detailed information regarding citations is critical.
 
“Saying it’s a ‘well-known fact’ is not good enough,” Brown said. “That can be a real blow to a proposal. It’s one of my pet peeves.”
 
Illustrating a collaborative effort among partners—community colleges, universities and even K-12—can strengthen a proposal. Details regarding how the partnerships will work, as well as letters of support from within the college—such as a department chair, dean or president—and from partners­—such as a K-12 superintendent—can go a long way, Brown said. Showing that the partnering institutions have a track record of students transferring from the community college to the university is also a good indicator of a real partnership, he said.  
 
Colleges that partners with a four-year institutions can also request an additional $50,000, he added.
 
NSF is keen on partnerships because it can indicate that the project or its goals will continue when federal funding expires, Brown said. Including information on how a college plans to sustain the project is critical in a proposal. For example, a proposal can include a letter from a dean or vice president stating that the college will assume responsibilities to pay for annual maintenance costs and regular expenses associated with the project, Brown said.
 
It’s also a good idea to have the proposal reviewed internally and externally. A department chair, for example, may know of another program or information that can be included in the proposal to strengthen it, while a partnering university can offer insight on how to clarify aspects of the proposal.
 
Review previous projects
 
NSF maintains abstracts of previous and current projects, which can provide a trove of information, including abstracts for the 2009 TUES grants specifically targeting chemists from community colleges Projects leads, which are included in the information, are usually willing to share copies of their proposals, Brown said.
 
In addition, the Journal of Chemical Education recently published an article regarding trends in funding of chemistry projects through the former CCLI program. Although it focuses on projects in chemistry, it may provide some insight into the general nature of TUES, Brown said.
 
Brown has proposed a follow-up project to expand on his 2009 project that focused on chemistry. The 2010 project includes additional disciplines of math, computer science and other physical sciences.
 
The next round of proposals for TUES grants are due May 26.
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