Funding Educational Change Projects: A Panel Discussion at the 2019 Transforming Institutions Conference

Kate White
Western Michigan University
Kate White (Western Michigan University), ASCN Research Director
Author Profile
published Apr 18, 2019 10:15am

The panel on funding at the 2019 Transforming Institutions Conference featured two representatives from funding agencies: David Asai (Senior Director for Science Education, HHMI) and Andrea Nixon (Program Director, Division of Undergraduate Education and Co-Lead, Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE) Program, NSF). Gita Bangera (Bellevue College, moderator) introduced our panelists, who started by discussing current initiatives at HHMI and NSF.

David Asai presented HHMI's new competition in the Inclusive excellence initiative; Andrea Nixon discussed NSF's programs in the Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR Core Research and Building Capacity in STEM Educational Research/BCSER) and their new solicitation for Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE) grants in the Institutional and Community Transformation Track.

Our panelists answered audience questions and we share some of their responses below.

Theories of Change

Our audience asked, what is the importance in having a theory of change as part of a grant application?

As part of the Inclusive Excellence initiative at HHMI, Asai shared that they are looking for evidence of institutional capacity for inclusive change, including an actual cultural change at the institution. How do you connect what you're doing with the grant money with long term cultural change? What conditions need to be in place to reach the outcome you want? This is your theory of change. The funders want to know how the money you're spending will lead to and connect with your goals. Nixon agreed that the theory of change is also an important part of your NSF IUSE application. Evaluators and organizational theorists may use "theories of change" and mean different things, but it should be part of the scope and breadth of any project, not just an add-on. NSF also values meta-analysis and synthesis projects, looking across projects and institutions to see how change occurs. Both Asai and Nixon agree that determining your theory of change should by pragmatic, as it connects your actions with your intended outcome.

Institutional Support and Challenges

Our audience asked several questions about institutional and administrative support, marginalized institutions, information sharing, and campus partnerships. First, how can smaller and/or marginalized institutions seek grant funding, especially when institutions lack the infrastructure to support those seeking external funding? How can administrative support be encouraged?

Nixon shared that NSF can bring a mock panel to your area, but they prefer to present to a range of institutions, not just one. They also offer program officer training courses, in which trainees are encouraged to consider the core ideas behind a proposal, not just the size or history of the institution. They are looking for evidence from different contexts, including smaller institutions. At HHMI, Asai said that they have realized their role is not that of a traditional funding agency; they want to be more of a partner with grantees and their community. Each initiative has to go through their governing board to form these competitions. At HHMI they also encourage institutions to apply in groups (and while 2-year colleges will not be considered in the Inclusive Excellence competition, they encourage partnerships between 2- and 4-year colleges). For administrative support, as part of the HHMI Inclusive Excellence program the institution is expected to commit to the project. For example, they are expected to cover the salaries of the leadership team of the grant. NSF looks at projects holistically, and administrative support is part of the resources you are expected to list (i.e., with letters of commitment). The need for administrative support is therefore built in to the structure of these grants.

How can those applying for grants access existing data and/or successful grant applications?

There are often institutional barriers to getting the data needed for grants. Nixon said that NSF encourages open sharing of anonymous data through publications, especially as this supports their expectations of replicability and access. It may be difficult to get around program requirements for data if you don't have access, but you can talk to your program officer. Both Asai and Nixon encourage asking other PIs of successful projects directly (projects and associated PIs are listed on each site) and contacting program officers or other representatives at funding agencies prior to submitting for additional support or advice about particular situations. Asai said that at HHMI they encourage building relationships with people on campus who have the data, as seeking and strengthening this type of connection is part of what they want you to do with the grant as you seek cultural change at your institution. They want to see the outcome reflected in the numbers from such offices, so these relationships are very important.

Are partnerships between STEM and non-STEM departments/groups on campus encouraged as part of these grants?

Asai said that at HHMI they have a STEM focus, but as they've indicated, they want your change to spread across your institution. At some point this requires partnerships with non-STEM departments/groups on your campus, so they want this to be part of your vision for your project. While the grant may be too small or short to include such a wide range of stakeholders at the institution, it should still be part of how you want the change to take hold over time. Nixon agreed that at NSF they also see this as very important, especially as the number of contingent and non-tenure track jobs increases. How does that affect STEM ed/learning? As Nixon said, it is incumbent on us to join in these conversations and find new partnerships that can answer these new questions that face higher education.

Practical Information

Our audience also asked a variety of practical questions about funding priorities and mechanisms.

Nixon shared that NSF encourages an emphasis on replication, and is especially interested in exploring different environmental contexts. Most answers to practical questions can be found in the NSF Proposals & Awards Policies & Procedures Guide (PAPPG). For example, one audience member asked whether graduate students and postdocs can be Principal Investigators (PIs) on NSF grant applications. Rather than being a question of the role of the grantee, Nixon said that NSF looks for proof that you have the resources, expertise, and support structure to be the PI on a grant. In practice this indicates those with long-term contracts or positions, such as faculty and researchers. Such information for HHMI grants can be found on their Funding Policies page.

Suggested Citation:

White, K. (2019, April 18). Funding Educational Change Projects: A Panel Discussion at the 2019 Transforming Institutions Conference. Retrieved from

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