Third time is the charm for pitch to NSF

Darrel J. Kesler (far right), a professor and dean at Ivy Tech Community College Fort Wayne (Indiana), talks with industry advisors in the college's greenhouse. (All photos: Ivy Tech)

Darrel J. Kesler was confident he had a good idea for a new agriculture program at his Indiana community college, but the two times he applied for National Science Foundation (NSF) funding, it was turned down. That’s when he decided to tap a program designed to help certain applicants strengthen their pitch for an NSF grant.

Kesler, a professor and dean at Ivy Tech Community College Fort Wayne, said Mentor-Connect’s Second-Chance Mentoring was “key” to the college receiving a $569,730 grant from NSF’s Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program to start a controlled environment agriculture (CEA) program.

Mentor-Connect is a leadership development and outreach initiative funded with ATE grants to Florence-Darlington Technical College (South Carolina). The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) is a partner on all of Mentor-Connect’s  programs. These programs:

  • Mentor community college faculty teams from institutions that are new to the ATE program or have not had an ATE grant in seven years.
  • Mentoring community college faculty teams that are proposing larger projects that build on their smaller, new-to-ATE grants.
  • Provide professional development fellowships to prepare ATE principal investigators to serve as Mentor-Connect mentors.
  • Co-mentor community college faculty with ATE Centers.
  • Offer free grant-writing information via its online resource library and technical assistance webinars.   

Back with stronger proposal 

When Kesler received the official award notice from NSF last month, it was a welcome comeback from the disappointment that followed review panelists’ criticism of the college’s proposals in 2018 and 2019 that led to NSF declining to fund his idea. As dean of the School of Advanced Manufacturing, Engineering, and Applied Science and School of Information Technology, Kessler has wanted to add the CEA program to maximize the use of campus facilities and address the global need for sustainable agriculture.

Sidebar: ATE supports multiple mentoring initiatives

He attributes the success of the proposal that the college submitted in October to the guidance he and his colleagues received from Jim Hyder, their Mentor-Connect mentor, while they rewrote the grant proposal last summer. Kessler encourages community college faculty who’ve felt the sting of rejection to apply to Mentor-Connect for grant-writing assistance.  

April 1 is the deadline for applications for Second-Chance Mentoring from community college faculty members whose ATE grant proposals have been declined in the past 24 months. Colleges selected by Mentor-Connect will receive 15 hours of guidance at no cost from mentors with extensive ATE grant experience to help their teams prepare ATE grant proposals in advance of the program’s October 2021 deadline.

‘Synergistic team effort’

“It was a very synergistic team effort that really pulled that off,” said Hyder, an instructional designer who is an ATE project principal investigator, about the interactions during the team’s periodic video calls with him.

“We did it stepwise – bit and pieces here, bit and pieces there. We didn’t try to accomplish everything at one time. It was far more manageable to take chunks of the grant and work through those chunks one at a time,” Kesler said.

He noted that Hyder’s insights helped him, Caitlin Cramer (assistant chair of industrial arts), Barbara Jones (grant-writing coordinator) and Katherine Wall (grants administration coordinator) work through the criticisms from NSF panel reviewers in 2018 and 2019 and avoid errors.

“‘What do you want to do?’ is what he would say to us,” Kesler said of Hyder’s most frequently asked question. After discussing a section during a video conference call, team members would rewrite and send drafts to Hyder to review. Kesler said Hyder’s queries put him in a different mindset.

“He’s very good at saying things without saying them directly,” said Kesler, noting that Hyder’s approach was particularly helpful for sorting project leadership issues, organizing a robust industry advisory committee and obtaining meaningful letters of commitment from industry partners.

In addition to Cramer, other co-principal investigators on the project are Lou Toth (assistant professor of industrial technology), Kelli Kreider (associate professor of agriculture) and Kris Roberts (associate professor of information technology and associate professor of agriculture).

Ivy Tech’s new CEA program

In an interview this month, Kesler described the CEA program as a professional passion. He grew up on a farm and envisions a future where feeding people will depend on technicians who can cultivate crops indoors with no soil and less water than traditional agriculture.

Among the Fort Wayne faculty, he has the most experience running grant-funded projects. But, as the 2018 panel reviewers noted, as dean he probably would not have time to lead it. So when the team re-submitted the grant in 2019, Kesler had a much smaller role on the proposed project. Reviewers that year criticized the team’s lack of grant management experience.

After discussing this conundrum with Hyder, Kesler asked for and received a 20% “download” of his administrative responsibilities to devote a portion of each workweek on the project. The project budget was also reconfigured to employ a full-time project manager.

Kelli Kreider (second from right), associate professor of agriculture, talks with students in the greenhouse at Ivy Tech Community College Fort Wayne.

The new CEA certificate program will build on Ivy Tech’s agriculture program and add interdisciplinary courses to develop higher-level, creative thinking, as well as skills in aquaculture, aquaponics, “smart” technologies and integrated facilities management.

Four new courses will involve a virtual Internet-of-Things teaching platform for online learning and hands-on lessons in the 3,000-square-foot campus greenhouse, where effluent from a tilapia fish farm will fertilize fruits and vegetables. Kesler said that he would eventually like wind and solar energy to completely power the greenhouse.

He hopes the program at the Fort Wayne campus will be a pilot test for replication at Ivy Tech’s 18 other campuses and eventually at community colleges throughout the U.S. The project’s award abstract notes that one expert predicts the CEA industry will need 100,000 technicians in the next decade, but that the industry has struggled to grow because of a limited skilled technical workforce.

“We need to be looking at where we’ll be feeding the world in the future,” Kesler said.

About the Author

Madeline Patton
is an education writer based in Ohio.