NSF Rewards Grad Students for Innovation Ideas

Last week, the National Science Foundation (NSF) named its first Innovation in Graduate Education Challenge awardees. As Science Careers reported when NSF announced the creation of the awards earlier this year at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston, the competition called “for graduate students studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to submit proposals describing how they would improve graduate education, whether by overhauling student and faculty training policies, modifying funding structure, bridging connections to professional societies, or changing the culture of graduate school.”

NSF received more than 500 entries from applicants in the United States. In total, the agency gave out eight awards, including a “community choice” award chosen by visitors to the contest Web site. First prize ($3000) went to Kevin Disotell, an aerospace engineering Ph.D. student at Ohio State University, Columbus, for his proposal to create a “low-cost, high-impact tool with national scope … to facilitate coordination among the stakeholders in STEM graduate education by establishing a web-based gateway that will function as an educational ‘passport’ for graduate students—helping them plan their degree journeys while benefitting from the assistance of a broad support network.”

“Career development was a major theme, both inside and outside academia.” —Kate Stoll

If that sounds a bit like an individual development plan, or IDP, (such as myIDP, which was put together as part of a collaboration with Science Careers), that’s not entirely an accident, Disotell tells Science Careers: He envisions a program that incorporates the self-planning and career-resources aspects of IDPs, but adds advisor-matching resources, job-search capabilities, social and professional networking, and interaction with potential employers. Ideally, such a comprehensive program would be placed under the purview of a federal agency like NSF, Disotell says.

In fact, most of the awardees focused in one way or another on enhancing the career opportunities of graduate students. For example, second-place winners ($2000) Dara Satterfield, Sara Heisel, and Sarah Budischak, all ecology Ph.D. students at the University of Georgia in Athens, jointly proposed a program to retain and advance women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields by combining mentorship opportunities, discussions of career pathways, and open dialogues about gender stereotypes and biases as well as encouraging all students and scientists to make their universities and companies more flexible workplaces. The third-place team ($1,500) from the University of Chicago in Illinois consists of ecology and evolution Ph.D. students Sebastian Heilpern, Courtney Stepien, Benjamin Krinsky, Robert Arthur, and Colin Kyle. The team proposed an external graduate assistantship program in which NSF would partner with both universities and private companies to create assistantship positions for students to gain professional experience while still earning their degree.

“Career development was a major theme, both inside and outside academia,” says Kate Stoll, who is an NSF-based AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow and founder of the Innovation in Graduate Education Challenge.

So what’s next for these proposals? Will any of them be considered for implementation by NSF? That remains to be seen, Stoll says. Right now, she and colleagues are conducting a content analysis of all the various entries to see what other trends emerge, and to determine whether some ideas might already be in place in some form in existing programs. For example, NSF’s ADVANCE program offers support and resources for increasing participation of women in science careers, and several programs provide mentorship and other opportunities for women and minorities. Stoll adds that NSF will be discussing their findings from this analysis, as well as the winning proposals specifically, within the agency itself and at various meetings of professional societies.

Interestingly, though, NSF isn’t sure whether it will offer the awards again next year, says James Lightbourne, who is director of the agency’s Division of Graduate Education. “The process itself seems to have some merit, as do the ideas that are generated,” but offering the program year after year might offer diminishing returns, he says. NSF will decide in the coming months whether to renew the award program.

You can read both summaries and full proposals by the eight winners at the program’s Web site.

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