Planning, Securing, and Jumpstarting an NSF-STEP Grant
Thomas Cheatham, Andrienne Friedli, William Robertson, and Ginger Holmes Rowell
Middle Tennessee State University
Are you considering writing a National Science Foundation (NSF) STEP proposal? STEP
(Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Talent Expansion Program) was
created by the U. S. Congress to increase the number of STEM graduates to support the U. S.
economy. This highly competitive program is now three years old and is having an impact on
undergraduate STEM education. In February 2005, NSF received nearly two hundred Type 1
proposals (full implementation grants that employ proven strategies for recruitment and
retention) and nearly twenty Type 2 proposals (research on STEM education strategies). Based
on funding availability and past cycles, roughly 10% of the proposals will be funded. With such
a modest success rate, it is important for STEP grant-writing teams to construct their proposals
carefully based on a strategy that matches their institution’s goals. Perhaps even more
importantly, if the proposal is selected for funding, the project must be well thought through in
order to accomplish the stated goals and minimize pitfalls. In short, a successful STEP proposal
must balance the requirements of the NSF-STEP program with the specific environment of the
In the fall of 2004, Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) received 1.7 million
dollars over five years for a Type 1 proposal entitled “STEPping Up Undergraduate Research at
MTSU (STEPMT).” MTSU currently attracts large numbers of students into the STEM
disciplines (over 4,700 students are currently declared as majors in MTSU’s College of Basic
and Applied Sciences). However, the ratio of graduating to entering students is low (11%).
Given this institutional reality, we designed our STEP proposal with an emphasis on retention
rather than recruitment in order to meet the NSF-STEP objective of increasing the number of
students receiving baccalaureate degrees in STEM disciplines. The approach taken with our
STEP project, named STEPMT, is to utilize on undergraduate research and experiential learning
as proven strategies to improve retention. The program incorporates a three-pronged approach
for year-round activities intended to improve undergraduate retention and graduation rates in the
STEM disciplines. The three key elements are:
Curriculum innovation. STEPMT supports the modification of freshman STEM
sequences to incorporate inquiry-based learning and the development of undergraduate
research courses and internal laboratory internships. An existing monthly teaching and
learning seminar was utilized to help faculty develop and share skills and strategies for
Formation of an undergraduate research community. Undergraduate students can apply
for funds to participate in on-campus academic year and summer research experiences. A
weekly undergraduate research seminar was created to create links between research
active students across the STEM disciplines.
Partnerships. Students are paired with area companies who have agreed to support
summer research experiences. On-campus summer research teams include area high
school students and teachers as well as minority students from nearby universities.
It is not a coincidence that the components of our STEP proposal overlap with the three
major goals of the university as articulated in MTSU’s Academic Master Plan. Briefly stated,
those goals are to promote 1) academic quality, 2) a student-centered learning environment, and
3) effective partnerships. A variety of elements contributed to the close match between the goals
of the NSF-STEP program and the environment at our institution. The undergraduate research
and experiential learning emphases of STEPMT complement the current direction that MTSU is
moving, assuring both faculty and administrative buy-in. The program itself is inherently
interdisciplinary and this is reinforced with co-Principal Investigators (co-PIs) from the
chemistry, mathematics, and physics and astronomy departments and the Dean of the college as
Principal Investigator (PI). STEPMT has a creative management plan involving all three co-PIs,
a part-time administrator, a strong external evaluator, and clear comprehensive assessment and
dissemination plans. The STEPMT team followed the Program Solicitation (NSF 04-529)
carefully and included the requested data on retention and graduation of STEM majors. A large
number of students (nearly 5,000 per year) are affected through the curriculum reform efforts,
and 50% of the undergraduate research positions are offered to students belonging to
underrepresented groups. Finally, a mechanism for institutionalizing the project to ensure its
sustainability is built into the proposal: the NSF-funded portion of the budget declines each year
as the university share increases.
General Proposal Writing Hints. As with all NSF programs, it is important to follow certain
general rules of proposal preparation:
Consult the Program Solicitation and the NSF Grant Proposal Guide
(http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/gpg/nsf04_23/) carefully and follow the instructions to the
Write a proposal abstract and introduction that clearly and succinctly convey the
motivation, goals, and strategy of the whole proposal.
Organize the proposal to make it easy for the reviewers to read and understand. Use
tables wherever appropriate for simplifying information.
Make sure the budget is tied clearly to project goals.
Back up statements with data (including references).
Provide letters of support that match needs identified in the proposal when such letters
Pay attention to details throughout (including biographical sketches).
Integrate the skills and experience of the PIs.
Select co-PIs who can and will work well together if the proposal is funded.
Include a strong assessment and evaluation plan.
Find an experienced and respected external evaluator.
STEP Proposal Writing Hints. Certain criteria are specific to the STEP program and may help
your proposal in the review process:
Include requested retention and graduation data for STEM majors.
Propose a specific, but reasonable, increase in graduation rates over the life of the project
(in our case we had a target increase of 10%).
Be sure that all STEM disciplines are included (or make a compelling case that you are
not siphoning majors from the other STEM areas).
Include a broad spectrum of well-integrated activities impacting freshman through senior
level students, but do not include a smorgasbord of activities.
Include high school recruitment activities only if they are appropriate in your plan.
Include curricular changes and other intervention activities to help students progress
Include an evaluation plan that is well thought out and incorporates an external evaluator.
Because STEP proposals are comprehensive, it is best to include an expert in project
evaluation to help design the evaluation program.
Describe how the STEP proposal adds to previous efforts and complements the direction
that the university is moving.
Be brief in describing previous programs.
Provide details about the proposal implementation plan including a timeline and
Include a dissemination plan.
Provide a carefully designed management plan that reimburses faculty and staff for their
efforts but one that is not too costly.
Include some travel funds in the budget for dissemination and for participant support.
Incorporate specific details about how minorities and underrepresented groups will be
included in the project.
Include some appropriate collaborations and partnerships.
Show buy-in from faculty and administration, if possible.
Utilize lessons learned from any appropriate pilot project at the university.
Proposal Writing Strategies. STEP grants are long-term (five year) complex grants with large
budgets (1-2 million dollars). Certain key strategies helped us write a winning proposal:
Start planning early. Because our proposal was funded on the third try, and the current
co-PI team was in place for two of these iterations, technically our successful strategy
was worked out over two years. We met weekly for several months prior to the deadline.
Learn from previous attempts. It is rare to succeed at the first attempt in any NSF
program, so most proposal-writing teams will have the opportunity to consider feedback
from previous applications. Go through the reviewers’ comments carefully—not all
suggested changes or criticisms are valid. Look for common themes that appear in a
number of the reviews. We noted in the reviewers’ responses to our first two proposals
that the concept of undergraduate research was well received. However, reviewers did
not believe that we would impact sufficiently large numbers of students. To remedy this
deficiency, we added activities to promote curricular reform into the third (funded)
proposal. If the proposal is being submitted for the first time get feedback by distributing
copies before submission to a few colleagues—particularly those that have previous
experience on NSF panels.
Divide the work. Make sure that the monumental tasks of assembling data and
presenting it effectively are spread among the co-PIs. However, there must be one
individual who takes charge of stitching the pieces together. The Microsoft Word Track
Changes feature is critical to keeping track of corrections.
Select a theme for the work. Pick a theme that can be identified throughout the proposal
and linked to all aspects of the proposal: in our case, the main theme was “retention
through undergraduate research” and it was an integral part of all our plans for
curriculum reform, the undergraduate research community, and partnerships with
industry and local schools.
Incorporate existing strengths and programs. We built our plans on programs already in
place and approached faculty who were active in, or leaning toward, curriculum reform
for support. Our plan for inquiry-based freshman STEM curriculum reform was
modeled after successful laboratory innovations implementing “studio physics” in our
college physics sequence. We already have successful undergraduate research courses
in biology, chemistry, and physics and a successful laboratory internship program in
chemistry that we used as models on which to expand. The college has had a
competitive undergraduate research award program for over ten years. We have had a
successful biotechnology industry internship program for several years. Modeling and
adapting proven programs such as these enabled us to extend the positive impact to other
STEM disciplines quickly.
Broad buy-in is essential. STEP grants should promote a change in the existing culture
so that they become a sustainable part of the institution after the grant ends. Thus, it is
important to demonstrate to the reviewers that the proposal has broad appeal and support
from faculty and administrators.
NSF Says “Yes.” Now What? With such a low success rate for STEP proposals, we were
surprised, but thrilled, to hear that we had received funding. Fortunately, the resources and
infrastructure of the College of Basic Applied Science (CBAS) Dean’s Office were available to
support our initial efforts and we were able to hire an administrative coordinator rather rapidly
and keep to the schedule outlined in the proposal. Another infrastructural element in place to
support our activities was the College Council on Undergraduate Research. All three of the co-
PIs are members of this committee (one is Chair), which has funded small ($1,000 or less)
undergraduate research awards annually through a competitive application process for the last
eleven years. Therefore, it was a logical and efficient choice to ask the committee to take on the
added duty of awarding STEPMT stipends for competitive research proposals. Another
established tradition in the College that could be incorporated into the STEP project is the CBAS
faculty Teaching and Learning seminars. These monthly lunch seminars, presented by MTSU
faculty members, were initiated in order to share curricular innovations among faculty members
and promote faculty development in this area. When the STEPMT grant was funded, these
seminars became venues for presentation of topics important to the STEP projects, including
inquiry-based learning and other curricular innovations and the undergraduate research process.
Examples of topics presented at the teaching and learning seminars during 2004-05 include:
Incorporating inquiry-based learning and undergraduate research into the Physics and
Astronomy curriculum: A success story.
Undergraduate Research Opportunities. What's in it for you? (by our external evaluator
Dr. Kathy Whatley from UNC Asheville).
Undergraduate Research Opportunities including Local Internships, REUs, and Summer
Programs with NASA Centers.
Panel discussion by students who have completed a REU.
New Ideas Learned at the Council of Undergraduate Research Conference.
STEPping up Undergraduate Research at MTSU: (STEPMT) Information Overview.
Using Writing to Help Students Construct an Understanding of Scientific and
Service Learning and Project-based Learning.
Attendance at this voluntary seminar series ranged from 14-42, and was encouraged with free
The funded STEPMT proposal describes a course that will be developed to teach students
in the STEPMT research community the skills needed to enter graduate school or the professional
STEM workplace. Without a course description or mechanism for registering students during the
first year, we elected to launch an informal weekly Undergraduate Student Research Lunch
Seminar Series, with the intent to convert it into a formal course at a later date. Topics covered
during this weekly student seminar series included: on and off-campus research opportunities,
research projects in different disciplines, getting started in research and choosing a mentor, how
to write a proposal, biological research: a case study, how to make a poster for presentation, a
tour of the engineering technology prototyping lab, internship opportunities in biotechnology,
and research in the concrete industry management program. Pizza-enhanced attendance ranged
from 10-25 students.
Benefits. In general, we are very pleased with the progress that has been made during the first
year of our STEP project. We accomplished most of the stated goals and documented our
activities well in preparation for reports and to support our evaluation efforts
http://mtsu32.mtsu.edu:11281/STEPMT/index.htm. The number of poster presentations in the
college Undergraduate Research Symposium increased by about 25% and attendance was high.
In an unplanned development, the evaluation portion of the project has resulted in a
publishable undergraduate research project for one of the co-PIs. This is particularly important,
since it sets a precedent on campus for linking research to education and public service projects.
Pitfalls. One aspect of the grant that we underestimated was the administrative load. Even with
a five-person management team, we had trouble keeping up with the paperwork. For example,
prior to assigning research teams for the summer, over 60 pages of letters and surveys needed to
be written and approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) in order to carry out the
evaluation commitments. New relationships needed to be established with industrial and
community school partners, and these required personal visits, phone calls, and a huge volume of
email with sponsors and applicants.
Although the infrastructure for awarding academic year scholarships was already in place
before STEPMT was funded, two new levels of applications were developed for STEPMT. In
addition, the number of scholarship winners increases each year. Although half-time reassigned
time for each semester (to be rotated among the co-PIs) was written into the budget, in practice it
was difficult to arrange workload credit during the first year due to prior commitments and the
activity of the co-PIs in a variety of other projects. It is therefore recommended that STEP PIs
request a full time administrative assistant from the outset to establish the grant infrastructure.
Another challenge inherent in STEP projects serving a broad population is
communication with the community that is being served. Despite emails from the Dean’s Office
and a campus-wide reception to announce and describe the program, many faculty members at
MTSU still do not have a clear view of what the STEPMT program offers even after a full
academic year has passed. Because faculty are a major connection to students, getting the word
out to students about opportunities for research was not fully realized.
Conclusions. With a 10% funding rate for STEP proposals, it is imperative that grant-writing
teams be very deliberate in crafting their proposals. A successful proposal must have a clearly
defined strategy that integrates the requirements of the NSF-STEP program with the strengths of
the proposing institution. The proposal must describe a convincing and well-wrought
implementation plan and an accompanying budget that is carefully justified. Because the
purpose of the NSF-STEP program is to create an enduring infrastructure, it is important to give
evidence that the program will become sustainable (in our case our budget will decrease in later
years as the university will take over some of the costs). The proposal should adhere exactly to
the requirements of the program solicitation; when there are more good proposals than funds
reviewers will reject otherwise strong proposals on technicalities. Finally, with such a
competitive program, it is important not to give up after an unsuccessful attempt but rather to
critically assess the reviewers’ feedback and use that process to build a stronger proposal for the
Following these guidelines, our multi-disciplinary team was successful in securing funding for
“STEPping Up Undergraduate Research at MTSU (STEPMT).” With a good start on our STEP
project, we are looking forward to assessing its impact on the student learning experience,
retention rates, and university culture.
Dr. Thomas Cheatham is a Professor of Computer Science and Dean of the College of Basic and
Applied Sciences at MTSU. He received his B.S. in mathematics from Campbellsville
University in Kentucky and his M.S. and Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Kentucky.
His teaching and research in mathematics and computer science have spanned four decades and
have focused on engaging undergraduate students in research. He has received university-wide
awards in teaching and in the use of technology in teaching and has served as department chair in
computer science, interim associate dean, and dean. E-mail: email@example.com
Dr. Andrienne C. Friedli is a Professor in the Department of Chemistry. She completed a B.A. in
Chemistry at Rice University, an M. S. in Organic Chemistry from Yale, and Ph.D. in Organic
Chemistry at the University of Texas at Austin. Following a postdoctoral appointment at
California Institute of Technology, she began at MTSU in 1993. Her research interests include
the synthesis, characterization, and applications of organic materials including organosilane
surface coating agents, polymers, and dyes. Her research is pursued in collaboration with mostly
undergraduate students, and together they also develop organic laboratory experiments and
demonstrations related to these research areas. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. William Robertson is a Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. He received
his B.Sc. in Physics from Imperial College of Science and Technology and his M.S. and Ph.D.
degrees from Purdue University. He worked at Argonne National Labs, IBM, and the National
Research Council of Canada before joining the faculty at MTSU in 1995. At MTSU he has
developed a research program in optics and acoustics that emphasizes undergraduate student
researchers as key participants. E-mail: email@example.com
Dr. Ginger Holmes Rowell is an Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematical
Sciences at MTSU. She received her B.S. in Mathematics from Birmingham-Southern College
and her M.S. and Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics from the University of Alabama, Huntsville.
Her research focuses on applications of statistics, including parametric cost modeling that she
started as a Summer Faculty Fellow with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, and the
development and assessment of applications of technology for teaching statistics. She was the
2004 Waller Education national award winner for outstanding commitment to and innovation in
teaching introductory statistics, a course in which she has incorporated over 100 students in class
and individual research projects that have resulted in publication or presentation. E-mail: