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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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