Posts Tagged ‘National Science Foundation’

The last two weeks I’ve been busy preparing my chemistry and astronomy curricula for school this fall and writing a Preliminary Proposal for the National Science Foundation’s Informal Science Education grant. That was submitted last Thursday, and then I’ve been gone to a family reunion over this last weekend at Bear Lake in northern Utah.

Aerial view of Eureka

Aerial View of Eureka, UT

My proposal has some changes from what I wrote last year; the core of having high school students work with historians, engineers, and other experts to document the history and uses of the chemical elements is still the mainstay of the Elements Unearthed project, but student-created videos aren’t as unique as they were two years ago when I first proposed this project. The NSF program is also more for informal science education: afterschool, public television, or museum programs outside the regular formal education system. Now that I am back teaching chemistry and multimedia in a high school setting, I have a group of students under my direction that can do much of the video editing and research themselves as part of my classes in a formal setting. What I am proposing for NSF to fund is the museum aspect of the project, thereby simplifying my proposal and making it more palatable. I am attaching the six-page project description here:


Based on what I’ve seen visiting museums across the country that have mining exhibits is that most mining towns are rural and don’t have the wherewithal to host a museum that can really stand on its own. Most small town museums are drastically underfunded and staffed with volunteers; the museums usually have poor Internet presence – if they have a website, it was probably created by somebody’s nephew ten years ago and is usually out of date and ineffective and doesn’t take advantage of Internet video, Web 2.0 technologies, or social networking links. The staff at these museums consists of elderly docents with a passion for local history and a great deal of personal knowledge that has never been recorded; the exhibits usually have faded labels and inadequate signage. So my proposal has three parts to it, all based on enhancing the quality of exhibits and the number of visitors to small town museums with mining exhibits, and all centered around what the museums need instead of what I want my project to do.

The first aspect of this Small Museum Enhancement Program is to meet with museum staff and determine what the museum most needs in terms of exhibit improvements or new exhibits, then provide the funds so that carpenters, electricians, and other contractors can fix up and rebuild the exhibits, such as providing better lighting to displays, building risers inside glass display cases to better display artifacts, cleaning and repairing the artifacts themselves, and in general digitizing and cataloging all the collections.

Eureka, Utah in 1911

Panorama of Eureka, Utah in 1911

The second aspect is to improve the museum’s online presence through redesigning the museum’s website and linking it to social networking sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, Scribd, GoogleEarth, etc. None of these small museums make use of blogs as a way of promoting the museum and keeping the public’s interest up, so I’m proposing that the staff be trained on how to set up and maintain a blog, including how to convert their photos and documents to be uploaded and linked as .pdf files to their blogs and to Scribd and other sites.

The third aspect of the proposal is what the Elements Unearthed project has always been about: adding to the museum’s collections by interviewing the staff, videotaping their tours of the museums, and collecting photos and oral histories from the community. Teams of local high school students will work with my students at Walden school to set up community nights where local townspeople bring in photos, documents, and other artifacts and allow us to scan or photograph them, then tell us their stories of the town and the mines on camera. We’ll edit all of this into the podcast/YouTube videos as we already have been doing. One addition is that we’ll also create “point-to-point” video segments based on specific locations in the museum corresponding to particular displays and create short videos that describe the display, show the docent explaining it, and add community and other resources beyond what the display can hold. These videos will be placed on iPads and used by visitors as they tour the museum, playing the videos as they reach each stop on the tour.

These are the three main points of the NSF-ISE proposal. Assuming this proposal receives encouragement to proceed, the final proposal must be submitted by early December. Based on my feedback from last year, I need to develop a stronger collaborative team instead of trying to do all of it myself (thereby increasing the probability of success) and I need a stronger evaluation plan, which means actually having a third party firm involved to plan the experimental design. NSF doesn’t want just projects that are worthwhile, they wan them to also enhance the field of informal science education through fundamental scientific investigation of what types of programs are effective for science education in informal settings. These strategic impacts mean a carefully considered methodology, and my attempts to set up a plan last year weren’t seen as strong enough strategically.

Toward that end, if anyone out there would like to comment on my proposal (if you think it is worthwhile, and if you have suggestions for improving it, etc.) then please take a look at the Preliminary Proposal and give me some feedback, either as a comment to this blog or to my e-mail at: elementsunearthed@gmail.com.


David Black

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Today I successfully submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation for The Elements Unearthed project. It was actually sent in via their online FastLane system, which I’ve dealt with before, usually with frustration and panic as I try to submit right at 5:00 p.m. on the deadline day. I broke with long habit and actually got this submitted a day early and it was a much more pleasant experience this time.

If you’ve never been through the process of submitting a formal proposal to NSF from one of their solicitations, here’s how the process works. First, you have to find a program area and solicitation (call for proposals) that matches the goals and objectives of your project. NSF funds projects in many different categories; the one that best matches what I’m trying to do (improve science, technology, engineering, and math [STEM] education through student-created podcasts) is the Informal Science Education solicitation (NSF 09-553). There are particular requirements and steps to follow for this or any other NSF grant. Before anything else, it helps to work with an expert in research design and to clarify the exact goals and operational objectives (which must be measurable) you will be focusing on. NSF recommends using a logic or process flowchart model to think through the inputs, processes or activities, outputs (products), and outcomes of the project. Here’s the logic model I’ve worked up for this project:

Logic Model

Logic Model for The Elements Unearthed Project

Once that has all been worked out, you’re ready to actually start writing up a proposal. First, a preliminary proposal must be submitted and approved by NSF before the final proposal can be submitted. This I did on June 25, and of the 610 submissions, about 40% (approximately 240) were approved for final submission. Next, you must follow what the solicitation asks for in particular and what the General Proposal Guidelines say in general. This proposal needs an electronic cover sheet, a one-page project summary, a 15 page narrative description with bibliography, biographical sketches of the principle personnel, and a detailed budget with justification. In the past I tried to cut and paste text from a Word document; this time I converted all my files to .pdfs and merely linked them in, which was much easier. I also included diagrams and tables for the first time. Here is a diagram I created this week showing the relationships between quality and quantity of videos created as one moves from professional broadcast video to podcasting.

Quality vs Quantity for podcasts

Comparing Quality, Quantity, and Professionalism for Podcasting

An obvious questions is, if I’ve had experience with this before, why didn’t I get the grant then and why do I think I’ll be successful this time? One of the best features of the NSF proposal process is that your projects are reviewed by at least three qualified experts who write up comments and suggestions. After doing the Letter of Intent (which is now a Preliminary Proposal – the solicitation was updated this year) and submitting the final proposal last year, the reviewers turned down my request mostly because I needed a better evaluation plan and broader project management. The basic idea was considered excellent and they all encouraged me to re-submit after improving those areas. I’ve now done so, at least as far as I can at this point (I’m still working out partnerships and the Advisory Committee) and my evaluation plan is much stronger than before.

If you would like to read the final full proposal, here is the Project Description in .pdf format:

Elements_Unearthed_ NSF_proposal_2009

I would appreciate any comments you might make or any support you might be able to give. This file also lists the expected completion dates of future podcast episodes.

Of the 240 or so that will submit final proposals, NSF expects to fund between 40 and 50 proposals. Mine is a Pathways Project, meaning it is a prototype project meant to eventually become a full-scale project. I proposed that we begin with 20 teams over two years, starting in 2010-11 with seven teams/sites in Utah, then spreading to 13 teams the next year in Utah, Colorado, and Nevada. I also proposed that each team work directly with personnel from local museums to utilize the museum’s expertise and to enhance the museum’s programs by providing finished video segments that can be used to attract visitors or for exhibits or even to sell in the gift shop to raise money. If you do the final math, 50 accepted out of 240 proposals is about a one in six chance. I’ve been successful with lower odds than that, so we’ll just have to wait and see. Unfortunately, the wait will be pretty long; it could be May before I know anything. In the meantime, I’m looking for other grants and sources of funding for this project, especially since I need money now to continue editing the videos and to set up new sites for this year.

But that’s one big load off my chest – for good or ill, I’ve clicked the submit button and it’s out of my hands. Now I can get back to editing. I proposed to have some episodes (about nine) completed by Jan. 1, when I will finally officially launch the iTunes site for this project. I am also looking at hosting the videos on Ourmedia or Libsyn since I won’t be able to use this blog for much video storage and traffic. I’ll also create YouTube versions of each episode, although I will have to break them up into <10 minute segments as I have already done with the Project Rationale video. After the initial nine episodes on Jan. 1, I will post additional episodes as I can get them finished on the first day of each month through May or June. I have enough materials to do about 30 episodes all told by then, so about five per month. That’s a lot of editing, and I’m also trying to make money from my other endeavors to keep food on the table and the mortgage paid. If I can get some grant money, I can focus on this project along.

We all have things we would do if we could because they are our passion. If we are extremely lucky, our passions also can become our careers and our jobs. If not, we have to work on them in-between trying to make ends meet. I’ve been luckier in this respect than most with past projects, and I know that I’ll be successful in this effort as well.

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    This has been a busy week for me here at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. On Tuesday, June 23 I presented The Elements Unearthed project at a Brown Bag Lunch here. It’s pretty informal; people bring their lunches and eat while the speaker presents. I had 20 people attend, which was very nice. I would have been happy with five!. After a couple of technology glitches  I switched to Plan B and everything went well. In addition to talking about the purpose of the project (which is to document the history, uses, sources, mining, refining, and hazards of the chemical elements and industrial materials through student-created podcasts (whew!)), I showed some short samples of the student videos created this last semester for glass blowing and synthetic diamonds. I also showed some animations with narration of a podcast episode I’m working on this summer on the history of atomic theory. You saw a sample image on the last post of Aristote’s hylomorphism. That’s just one frame of a whole animation. But just so that you can have a sneak peak at what will be posted to iTunes and YouTube by the end of August, here is the first video clip of the students’ work:

This is a clip edited and narrated by Alex Anderson, who also took the photos of the rejects at the end of the clip. Videotaping was done by Sam Comstock, Megan Parish, and Bernardo Martinez. My only contribution was some final tweaking of the video color balance and lighting to match up the two cameras and smooth up some transitions; otherwise, the editing is all Alex’s work.  This is a representative sample of the kind of work you’ll see when these episodes are finally posted. I’ll post the samples for Synthetic Diamonds and Aristotle/Empedocles next time.

    Here is the PDF version of my presentation, sans video clips:   Elements_Unearthed_Presentation_6-23-09

    After my presentation, Ron Brashear, the Director of the Beckman Center here at CHF, took me out to lunch. As we talked, I was surprised to find that we knew some of the same people. He had worked at the Huntington Library in California, researching Edwin Hubble’s letters and personal papers. As part of his research, he visited Mt. Wilson Observatory where Hubble did most of his work. I’ve been up there several times with the NASA Explorer School workshops that I did for JPL, and so we’ve both met some of the astronomers and docents at Mt. Wilson and we’ve both visited the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ. It is a small world, as they say.

Intersecting Bubbles

Intersecting Bubbles

    I find, however, that as I have these opportunities to work in the science education and science history fields, that I increasingly meet the same people, or at least find that we have the same aquaintances. Academic and scientific circles become increasingly rarefied and specialized, but sometimes they intersect in interesting ways. One of the great privileges of my life has been to meet some of the best minds in several scientific disciplines, including space exploration, astronomy, and now science history. I’m not going to drop names here, but when comparing them to so-called “celebrities” I’ve met, the scientists are the truly great ones, the ones we should be holding up as heroes. My fellowship here at CHF has already helped me to make contact with some of these personal heroes and to at least intersect their circles, and that may be the best part of all for a science groupie like me.

    The other activity I’ve worked on is a Preliminary Proposal for an Informal Science Education grant from the National Science Foundation, which was due yesterday at 5:00. After writing with blazing speed (I hope it makes sense), I wrestled with NSF’s Fastlane submission system and finally hit the submit button a few minutes after 5:00, only to realize that I forgot to justify one of my budget entries – to provide stipends for time and equipment to the mentor teachers/schools of the participating teams. Hopefully that won’t be enough to kill it.  I am submitting the Summary Page and the Project Description here for your evaluation. I would appreciate any feedback you can give.



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Ash Grove Cement Plant from Highway 132

Ash Grove Cement Plant from Highway 132

The Elements Unearthed Project will proceed through several phases, the first of which is under way now. These include (1) Feasibility Study or Proof-of-Concept, (2) Planning and Prototype Development, (3) Full Project, and (4) Ancillary Materials creation. Each phase is described in detail below:

Phase I: Feasibility Study:

    The first phase of The Elements Unearthed is a feasibility study or proof-of-concept. During the first year (2007-08 school year) media design students at Mountainland Applied Technology College (MATC) traveled to several sites in Utah and interviewed scientists and engineers and videotaped their tours. These included the Ash Grove Cement Plant near Leamington, the Brush Wellman beryllium concentration plant near Delta, and the historic Tintic Mining District around Eureka. Their footage and photos were captured digitally and transcribed, then edited into video segments of about 15 minutes each. Each team had from three to five students and each student had specific responsibilities, such as editing photos or cleaning up the audio. Titles, animations, credits, and other clips were added and the whole video episode was exported and tested by other students. Their comments were used to revise the project.


    Results of the testing showed a number of areas that could be improved. These included shortening the episodes to a maximum of 12 minutes (15 minutes was a bit too long and seemed to drag), keeping the narration focused and engaging (some of the student narrators were a bit deadpan), using consistent styles and quality, and improving the process of team collaboration and reporting. Because of this feedback, the first episodes are now being revised with additional footage, better images and narration, and will be uploaded to our blog and podcast sites by the end of January, 2009.


    We are now starting the second round of podcast episodes for the 2008-09 year. Students have divided into teams and have chosen topics from a list of possible local businesses. These include how stained glass windows are made, how bricks are manufactured, the history and process of synthetic diamond manufacturing, how air is liquefied and distilled into its component molecules, and the history and processes of making pottery. The teams are researching their topics and are collaborating together via wikis to coordinate research and to write their initial episode scripts. These scripts can be edited by any other student in the group. Students have created their own journal pages where they can comment, ask questions, and make suggestions and where the Principle Investigator can also leave instructions.


    To improve the accuracy of their information, each group will work with a Subject Matter Expert (SME) who represents the site they are visiting. This person can be a scientist or engineer from a mine site or refinery, a docent or historian from a local museum or historical society, an artist, or anyone with detailed knowledge of the subject. As the teams develop their scripts, the SME will access the wiki site and make changes or suggestions to what has been written. Team members will ask questions on the wiki and the SME will answer them, gradually adding to the detail and depth of the group’s script. Once the team has videotaped the site and captured the footage to the computer, they will transcribe all the interviews and make final editing decisions. These transcriptions will also be posted to their wiki page and the SME will again check them for accuracy. Once the video segments are done, other teams will view them and make suggestions regarding quality and consistency and the SME will give approval.


   Once the final version is complete and exported, it will be compressed into H.264 or .mp4 format and metadata tags will be added to it, then it will be linked to our blog site and uploaded to several podcast and video aggregate sites, including YouTube, TeacherTube, the Apple iTunes Store, Podcast Alley, Podcast Pickle, and others. Included with many of the video podcast will be audio and enhanced audio versions as well as .pdf files that can be downloaded and printed. These written files will be a well-designed version of the final script with images and references. A feedback evaluation form will also be included in .pdf format so that our end audience can fill it out and return it to us.


    Phase I of our project will be completed by the end of May, 2009 and the lessons we learn from it will be applied to the design and delivery of Phase II, which starts June, 2009 depending on funding.

Phase II: Planning and Prototype Development:

    In Phase II we will expand the project beyond the students at Mountainland Applied Technology College to include community teams from around Utah and neighboring states. The Intermountain West has a rich history of mining and chemical manufacturing, and we will solicit volunteers from schools and the communities where these sites are located. As the Project Manager, I will travel to various teacher conferences in Utah including the Utah Science Teachers (USTA) Conference on Feb. 20, 2009 and the Utah Coalition of Educational Technology (UCET) conference on March 6-7 to present the details of this project to other teachers and recruit them to be mentor teachers to student teams from their schools. For example, I hope to recruit a team and teacher from Bingham High School or Copperhills High School to research and document the history of the Bingham Canyon Copper Mine, or students from Park City to document the history of the silver mines there. If needed, I will send direct mailings, e-mails, travel to individual schools, and present to interested student and community groups to solicit at least five new teams for the 2009-2010 school year. To act as an incentive, depending on funding, I will offer mini-grants to the teachers who will mentor a team so that they can purchase necessary software and hardware for this project. By the end of May, 2009, the teams will be selected and initial visits and training done as to expectations, timelines, and communication/collaboration techniques.

   During the summer, 2009, I will be at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia conducting research as Societe de Chimie Industrielle (American Section) fellow. I will dig into their stacks of historical manuscripts, portraits, illustrations, recorded histories, and other materials to conduct background research for this project, specifically on the history of chemistry as it emerged as a science in the 17th and 18th Centuries from its roots in alchemy and metallurgy and the development of the atomic theory. I will compile digital copies of illustrations, images, portraits, etc. that can be used in a video format and also create 3D models and animations based on these illustrations, which will be used in subsequent podcast episodes. For more on this fellowship, go to the websites:

 Once I return in the fall, I will be working on this project full-time (again depending on funding) and will work closely with each selected team as they develop their research into a wiki site. I will help them make contact and work with a Subject Matter Expert, and set up times for interviews and tours. During the week of their scheduled tours, I will visit the school and train the team members for several hours each day (after school) on how to use the video equipment (which I will bring), how to capture the footage and write transcripts, and how to edit it into final video form. Then we will will visit the site and interview the expert and tour the facility. Once the week of training is over and the footage is captured, the teams will work on their own (with frequent contact with me) and do the editing and revisions needed on their topics. Once the video is in beta quality, other teams and the expert will review it and the team will make final revisions and gain approval of the expert. Then the videos will be compressed to podcast format, metadata will be added, and they will be posted to this blog and to other sites such as YouTube and iTunes by May, 2010.

   During the spring, 2010, I will solicit more teams in Utah and start to branch out into neighboring states (Colorado, Nevada, and Arizona). Footage of the training sessions for this second phase will be edited into “how to” instructional videos for future teams, so that they can conduct their videotaping and editing more independently (as it will soon become impossible for me to visit each site). By the end of May, 2011, the second phase will be complete with about 20 additional podcast episodes completed by student/community teams and several episodes (mostly historical based on my CHF research) created by me. By this time, about 30-35 episodes will be complete.

   During Phase II, in addition to the prototype podcast episodes, some sample Flash-based games and a full website will be developed as prototypes of the ancillary materials that will be created in Phase IV.

Phase III: Full Project

   At the close of Phase II, our efforts up to that point will be carefully and completely evaluated to determine how effective the project has been, with success measured in how many people are downloading our podcasts, the number and quality of these podcasts, how many students have been involved and their feedback, and the extent to which we have increased excitement and knowledge of STEM careers and subject content. This assessment will be used to plan and apply for grants for the full project as Phase III. 

   We will expand the project from just Utah and neighboring states to teams in states across the country (and theoretically the world). These teams will have to be self-motivated and taught using our on-line training materials (developed in Phase II) and will develop episodes that live up to strict standards in order to be included in the project. Over the three-four year length of Phase III, as many as twenty or more teams will create episodes, with over 100 being created altogether by May of 2015.

Phase IV: Ancillary Materials

   Coinciding with Phase III, I will develop a series of ancillary materials including website, posters, broadcast videos (perhaps a mini-series of six one-hour episodes compiled and re-edited from the student projects), curricular materials, on-line games, PDFs with lesson plans and fact sheets, and even a coffee table style book.

   These materials will be developed to extend the reach of the project and provide additional resources and teaching tools for teachers and to help promote the project for the general public. Whereas the podcast episodes created by students will be distributed for free, it is anticipated that the ancillary materials will be created for profit and to help support the student/community arm of this project.

   Depending on the grants that we will receive, it is anticipated that we will complete all final assessments and reports on this project by the end of 2015.

   Next time: How you can help!

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