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STEPping Up the Production of U.S. Scientists

Is there a serious need for more highly-skilled U.S. scientists? Many people would answer yes, particularly supporters of the Technology Talent Act of 2001. Two advocates who worked on this legislation--Congressman Sherwood Boehlert and Senator Joe Lieberman--argued that the nation's academic institutions have not produced enough skilled scientists and felt that the country needed to meet the inevitable demand for a larger scientific workforce in the future.

The Technology Talent Act was eventually incorporated into HR 4664, the National Science Foundation (NSF) Reauthorization Act of 2002, with the intent of improving the education system and sustaining the economy and national security. The bill allowed NSF to develop a new program to increase the number of U.S. citizens and permanent residents with undergraduate degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Hence, in 2002, NSF created the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program (STEP).

So far, 77 projects have received grants through STEP, and the program is currently soliciting project proposals for FY 2006 and FY 2007. “We’re hoping to fund ones that are going to make a big impact,” says Susan Hixson, program director of the Division of Undergraduate Education at NSF. An estimated $25,000,000 will be awarded each year, depending on funding availability.

Providing Funding

As in previous years, STEP will provide grants for two types of projects. The first kind, called Type 1, is aimed at increasing the number of U.S. citizens and permanent residents who attain bachelor’s and associate degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and encouraging more students with associate degrees to continue their studies at a 4-year institution. If they do their work well, Hixson believes, STEP can meet these goals. “Most students are capable of doing [science],” she says. “They just often haven’t been given the right background, or they don’t know what the study strategies need to be.”

For a Type 1 grant, a 2-year or 4-year institution must be involved in the proposed project. Non-academic institutions, including nonprofit organizations and businesses, can submit a proposal, but they have to partner with a college or university. Each academic institution can only be part of one Type 1 submission in a given competition.

Type 2 projects, involve educational research that closely examines factors that prompt undergraduates to drop out of the sciences, as well as factors that help them stay on to attain associate and bachelor’s degrees in these disciplines, or otherwise to acquire more access to science and related careers. These projects are expected to generate findings that the education community can use to attract more young minds into science.

Unlike Type 1 proposals, Type 2 has fewer eligibility restrictions; any individual or organization can apply for these grants, and proposal writers can be involved in more than one Type 2 grant.

Each Type 1 award will be a 5-year grant worth up to $2,000,000, although the maximum amount depends on the undergraduate enrollments of the participating schools. Type 2 awards may be up to $500,000 per year for 1-to-3-year projects.

STEP awards are highly competitive; the program receives 170 to 200 proposals each year, but only about 15 to 20 Type 1 awards--and no Type 2 awards--will be handed out for FY 2006. The following year, STEP will give out 1 to 3 Type 2 awards and--again--15 to 20 Type 1 awards.

Tips for Writing STEP Proposals

Given the competitiveness of the STEP program, a strong proposal is essential. Hixson provides the following tips.

For Type 1 projects, proposal writers:

  • Are encouraged to work with faculty across all science and related disciplines at the participating academic institutions. Because STEP grants are considered institutional grants, projects are more likely to be funded if the plan intends to boost the number of all science, technology, engineering, and mathematics graduates--thus, making a large impact--as opposed to targeting one discipline or underrepresented group.

  • Need to carefully examine why their school does not have more STEM majors or graduates. It is important to determine, for instance, how many students have been dropping out or changing majors. The most competitive proposals had this information.

  • Should state well-researched strategies that they believe will resolve the issues they’ve identified. Any mechanism or strategy is welcome, but including successful strategies from other schools is best.

For Type 2 projects, proposal writers:

  • Must be familiar with education or sociology research methodology. Those that have not had appropriate training in these types of research, are encouraged to work with experts in educational research, especially those familiar with best practices.

  • Must read the current program solicitation, especially information under the subheading “Project Description” within Section V and “Additional Review Criteria” within Section VI. These segments highlight details that reviewers will be looking for in the proposals. Writers should be sure to include all the requested information, from current undergraduate enrollment figures to the expected increase in the number of undergraduate STEM degree holders during the grant period.

Before submitting a proposal, project writers are encouraged--although they are not required--to send a letter of intent, which gives a brief project overview. For FY 2006, letters of intent are due by 5 January 2006 and project proposals are due by 9 February 2006. FY 2007 deadlines are 15 August 2006 for letters of intent and 26 September 2006 for proposals.

The programs funded by STEP continue to have an impact on the nation and world by producing skilled scientific workers that help drive the economy. “Most of the economic growth that has happened in the country in recent years has been a direct result of scientific discoveries and engineering design implementations,” Hixson says.

Edna Francisco is a contributing writing for MiSciNet and may be reached at

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