January 17, 2013
When EDC’s Barbara Berns says she is worried about the future of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—also known as the “STEM” fields—in the United States, she isn’t talking about what is happening in classrooms. She is concerned about what is happening at research and development institutions across the country.
“All the talk about STEM is ‘we need more biologists, more chemists,’” she says. “But we also need more curriculum developers and researchers. Few people even know that these career paths are available and important.”
The National Science Foundation (NSF) agrees, and has teamed up with EDC to create the Community for Advancing Discovery Research in Education (CADRE) Fellows program. The nine-month fellowship is an innovative attempt to prepare the next generation of leaders, thinkers, and researchers in STEM education, and provides an in-depth look at what it means to pursue an academic career in the field. It helps up-and-coming STEM educators learn functional skills, such as how to publish research. Fellows also meet researchers who have successfully sustained their careers by finding pockets of money to fund their research.
Berns indicates that fellows are attracted to the program both by the material they will learn and the peers they will meet.
“We know that PhD candidates can feel isolated in their particular fields,” she says. “This is an opportunity for them to come together with others who have similar long-term goals.” Most of the 10 CADRE fellows this year are enrolled in a doctoral program.
Being part of a larger community of STEM researchers attracted Arnon Avitzur, a doctoral student from New York University, to the program.
“There are very few opportunities for doctoral students to actually connect with people outside their own institution,” he says. “It’s like teaching—it gets to be a lonely profession.”
The program acts as part support group and part incubator for new research ideas. At a recent meeting in Boston, fellows took turns exchanging information about their interests. Avitzur, for example, is drawn to the idea of transfer—how a single mathematical idea is used in different contexts.
“What I’m trying to answer,” he says, “is how come some students call on particular theorems to solve a geometry problem, and some don’t—even though they seem to have the same knowledge?”
Among the CADRE fellows, epistemological questions lay side by side with curricular ones. Angi Shelton, a fellow from North Carolina State University, is interested in making science instruction more engaging through the use of technology tools.
“I want to make science education more accessible for all students,” she says. “So that in middle school, we don’t have this drop-off where students all of a sudden do not like science anymore.” She believes that technology tools may help students think about difficult concepts in new ways, keeping them interested in science.
Answering these questions is not easy, and it cannot be done for free. One of the central missions of the CADRE Fellowship is to help early career researchers, like Avitzur and Shelton, learn how to apply for grants from the National Science Foundation, whose Discovery Research K–12 (DRK–12) program funds innovation and research projects in STEM fields.
According to Berns, this focus on grant writing fills an essential need. She says that while many CADRE fellows are currently assisting on NSF-funded grants, there are few formal mentoring programs within their individual programs—meaning that many of the fellows remain in the dark about how to write a winning grant.
“There’s a difference between being supervised and being mentored,” she says.
In helping new researchers learn how to apply for funding, the fellowship also stands to benefit the NSF by bringing new talent forward. Between 60 and 90 DRK–12 research grants are awarded each year, with many going to a small pool of applicants who have previously landed these prestigious awards. Berns says that the NSF is supportive of the CADRE program because it wants to broaden the field of potential grantees in order that the best, most innovative ideas get funded.
For Shelton, the emphasis on proposal writing is one of the elements that drew her to the CADRE Fellowship.
“That’s part of what being a CADRE Fellow is all about,” she says. “It’s almost a gateway into learning how to write a grant, how to network, how to fund the research that can lead to a tenure-track job.”