NSF Graduate Fellowships Now Recognize STEM Education as Valid Research Field

In 2000, the National Science Foundation began funding graduate students who also wanted to help out elementary and secondary school teachers in the classroom. A novel idea at the time, the NSF Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education Program is now an established part of the foundation's $900 million portfolio aimed at raising the quality of U.S. math and science education. But it's taken a decade for NSF officials to formally acknowledge that improving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education is a legitimate research activity for a graduate student.

Candidates for the 2011 Graduate Research Fellowship (GRF) program, whose applications are due in next month, will now find STEM education listed as a recognized field of research. That's a first for NSF's most prestigious fellowship program, which is on a rapid path to triple in size as part of the Obama Administration's pledge to increase the number of domestic students entering the scientific workforce. "We wanted to clarify things, and say that we support research in this area," explains James Lightbourne, head of NSF's division of graduate education.

Until this year, STEM education was absent from the list of 150 fields—from analytical chemistry to zoology, including 21 fields of engineering and four branches of anthropology—that NSF was willing to support. Applicants wishing to pursue education research instead had to select "other" as their primary field, describe their particular research topic, and then hope review panels would look kindly on their idea.

Noah Finkelstein, a physicist who conducts physics education research in a highly lauded program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, calls the change "a big positive move." Until now, he says, NSF "required folks to get their Ph.D.s in one of the traditional disciplines." The new designation, he adds, recognizes that STEM education is "an important, legitimate pursuit for graduate research and for the portfolio of activities that NSF and scientists are responsible for."

That recognition may help some graduate students come out of the STEM "closet." One first-year graduate student with an NSF fellowship to carry out research in the learning sciences, for instance, had to select "other" on her application and label her proposal as "educational psychology" because there were no other choices. "I'm so proud of NSF for doing this," she says.

Lightbourne says "I have no idea how popular it will be. But he says some colleagues are predicting a deluge. (Last year NSF funded 2000 of 12,000 applications across all fields.) He says the appearance of STEM education on the list is part of a broader "reexamination" of the taxonomy that NSF now uses. Expect "even more changes" in the 2012 application, he adds.