Advice on Writing the Educational Component of an NSF Grant Proposal

Lincoln D. Carr

The following advice is based on a successful NSF career proposal in 2005. I have had a wonderful time carrying out that proposal, together with my close collaborator Prof. Sarah McKagan, a physics education researcher, and the results are publicly available for you to look at [1].

First, choose something you care about. Everyone has an educational issue that is particularly important to him or her. In my case, it was graduate quantum mechanics. I had taken graduate quantum mechanics at the University of Washington and written a thesis in many-body condensed matter theory. Yet when I arrived in Paris for my first postdoctoral position, I found that I knew almost nothing about quantum mechanics; from a French perspective I was forty years behind the state of the art. In the process of teaching myself what I needed to know, it struck me that many of these things I could have learned as a graduate student: for instance, that the density matrix is not just about finite temperature; what entanglement is; and what it means to make a measurement in a quantum system. So when I wrote my NSF career proposal I focused on bringing quantum mechanics up to date in the U.S., something I had direct experience with and cared about personally. Having reviewed for NSF many times now, I would say that this personal investment really shines through in a proposal. Don't write about something you don't believe in just because you think it sounds good. Find what you believe in and write about that.

Second, enlist help from the physics education research (PER) community. People in this discipline apply their scientific training towards improving teaching, something we should all be doing at least part time at universities. Prof. Noah Finkelstein aided me in my career grant application. Among other things he helped me develop a clear program of quantitative measurements I could make on my proposed teaching reform, and then put it in the context of ongoing research in physics education. A teaching experiment is not like a normal science experiment on human subjects, since there is no real double-blind experiment possible. Also, although there is extensive data showing that PER-inspired methods have a tremendous and measurable impact on course outcomes, the overall traditional research community is not always aware of this. Developing a good set of references to support the educational part of your proposal shows that you are serious and understand the broader impact of your work. There are many aspects of education you can work on, and PER folks know them well: methodology, content, assessment, attitude, etc.

Third, always make sure that the faculty in your department is on board with your program. With their support and advice you can write a better proposal. And if you receive the grant, you will be better able to carry out the program and have something magnificent to report on when it comes time to apply for a renewal. Older faculty members have a great deal of teaching wisdom, which can be tapped during the proposal-writing process. Your department chair/head should also be invested in your ideas, which can have a real impact on key campus issues tied to actual department funds, like the number of undergraduates who major in physics. You may also need technical support for innovations like clickers or simulation-based in-class demonstrations.

Fourth, don't be over-ambitious. I have this tendency myself. In writing my own grant I initially wanted to create a viable terminal MS degree in physics at a national level as well as reform the teaching of graduate quantum mechanics, among other plans! This is far more than a new faculty member can do. You should be realistic about your time and provide a clear description of how your educational plan can be carried out while you make great strides in your traditional research. If possible, the two plans, research and education, should fit together nicely. For instance, in my case I was starting a many-body quantum research program at a fairly applied university. Therefore it was paramount to educate students in the proper understanding of quantum mechanics in order to eventually produce viable graduate students for my group.

Fifth, do something that stands out. For example, everyone creates a new course in their department at some point, so that is not really remarkable. On the other hand, creating a new course and then quantitatively studying its impact on depth of conceptual understanding in related courses would be novel. Does the new course create a better physicist, or just allow you to talk about what you like best? Similarly, speaking at the junior high or high school down the street and recruiting from there is something that already happens anyway on most university campuses. Instead, try going to a rural or poorer school where there is an underdeveloped science program and speak about science there, where it's really needed. The same is true for graduate recruiting—try going to a liberal arts school where there are talented science students who are being overlooked. Finally, it doesn't hurt to reach out educationally to the dominant under-represented group in your area. For instance, many western U.S. states have a high percentage of Hispanic Americans, many of whom struggle financially and languish in community colleges, despite a high level of talent.

To summarize, I suggest the following: write on something you care about; get advice from the experts in physics education research; make sure your fellow faculty are enthused about your ideas and get their input; stay focused and be realistic about your time; and step out of the ivory tower.


[1] L. D. Carr and S. A. McKagan, “Graduate Quantum Mechanics Reform,” American Journal of Physics, vol. 77, p. 308 (2009).

Lincoln D. Carr is an Associate Professor in the Department of Physics of the Colorado School of Mines

Disclaimer - The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of APS.