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Mentor-Connect Builds STEM Faculty Leaders While Demystifying NSF Application Process

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Nailing her two-minute, "elevator" speech at the Mentor-Connect 2017 Technical Assistance and Grant Writing Workshop boosted Lauren Dickens' confidence.

"Putting us in a position that is simulating that kind of speech or talk in front of a board, chamber of commerce, whatever, I think it is really valuable [for] developing community leadership, industry leadership, as well as at our school," said Dickens, an assistant professor of economics at St. Charles Community College.

Dickens, who is also interim dean of business, science, education, math, and computer science, anticipates she may soon make her first presentation to the college's board about what she and two colleagues learned during the Mentor-Connect workshop in New Orleans from February 1 to 3.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for five years Mentor-Connect has provided mentors and technical assistance to help 20 two-year college teams annually prepare competitive grant proposals. Mentor-Connect's systematic grant development process also aims to cultivate STEM educators' leadership skills.

Barry Bates, program coordinator of bioscience technology at Atlanta Technical College, used the tour of the New Orleans BioInnovation Center during the Mentor-Connect Workshop to gather information for the proof-of-concept bioincubator he is developing.

Barry Bates, program coordinator of bioscience technology at Atlanta Technical College, used the tour of the New Orleans BioInnovation Center during the Mentor-Connect Workshop to gather information for the proof-of-concept bioincubator he is developing.

Lauren Dickens, an assistant professor of economics at St. Charles Community College, says she is ready to talk with colleagues, board members, employers about the college's NSF grant proposal thanks to the lessons she learned at Mentor-Connect's Technical Assistance and Grant Writing Workshop.

Lauren Dickens, an assistant professor of economics at St. Charles Community College, says she is ready to talk with colleagues, board members, employers about the college's NSF grant proposal thanks to the lessons she learned at Mentor-Connect's Technical Assistance and Grant Writing Workshop.

The 20 teams selected for Mentor-Connect's fifth cohort are preparing to submit proposals in fall 2017 to the National Science Foundation's track for Small Grants for Institutions New to the Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program.

The effort that the 41 faculty members and 25 administrators and grant writers who attended the workshop invested in their elevator speeches yielded more than feel-good moments. Discussions with their mentors while they wrote and revised their speeches helped the teams clarify the STEM technician education improvements they hope to accomplish with NSF support.

In addition to talking points, the elevator speech exercise provided each team with a first draft of the project summary required for NSF-ATE grant proposals.

Mentor-Connect Provides Systematic Proposal Development Process

Each workshop session supports the step-by-step approach Mentor-Connect uses to help colleges navigate NSF procedures, build their institutional capacity for managing NSF grants, and complete each component of their proposals to make them competitive.

After the workshop each college team will continue to receive advice via phone calls and emails from its mentor, who is a successful ATE principal investigator. Mentees will also receive technical assistance from the staff of Mentor-Connect, which is part of the South Carolina Advanced Technological Education Center at Florence-Darlington Technical College. The American Association of Community Colleges is also a Mentor-Connect partner.

"Writing a good proposal is a bit like having a baby; it takes nine months to do it right," said Elaine Craft, principal investigator of Mentor-Connect. As an NSF-ATE project, Mentor-Connect makes its webinars, forms, checklists, and other digital resources available for free via its website http://www.mentor-connect.org/.

Mentor-Connect workshop experiences—such as the mock panel review of ATE proposals, hours of face-to-face meetings of mentees with their mentors, presentations by NSF program officers and Mentor-Connect leaders, and a tour of the New Orleans BioInnovation Center—are intended to build momentum to help the teams complete their proposals.

Elizabeth Teles, an NSF program officer, who presented helpful tips for NSF proposals during a plenary session, praised the positive attitude evident in the mentees' elevator speeches. "For you all to be this enthusiastic and this energetic and this committed at this stage, is just a wonderful sign," she said.

Early Praise from Mentor-Connect Mentees

Dickens, the faculty member and interim dean from St. Charles Community College, described the mock panel review as a "transformative leadership experience." This session took mentees through NSF's peer review process to analyze real proposals provided by two previous Mentor-Connect teams.

Alexander Majewski, an advanced manufacturing instructor at Truckee Meadows Community College, called the entire workshop "incredibly helpful" for him and colleagues who are trying to improve and grow the college's mechatronics program to meet the workforce needs of Panasonic and Tesla.

"I could not imagine trying to change our program around without having the knowledge that we've gained here first. Just being able to network with people, talk with them about what they are doing with their [programs], finding out about ATE centers ... and the published curriculum. This is our missing piece that we really need to plug in to make our program what we want it to become," he said.

For the Brookhaven College team the tour of the New Orleans BioInnovation Center fostered brainstorming about ways to involve businesses in their plan to blend geographic information system instruction with the college's new engineering program.

"We didn't come here to Mentor-Connect, thinking about an innovation center, but ... the best programs are the ones that involve industry. And that is why we are here at this Mentor-Connect, [it] is to help get tips on how we do that, as we're doing our grant writing," said Marilyn K. Lynch, associate vice president for development at Brookhaven College.

Skills & Advice for the Long Haul

Although hopes are high that every Mentor-Connect team will submit a competitive proposal and obtain high ratings from reviewers, NSF-wide about 22% of proposals are funded. The funding rate in the New-to-ATE track is about 60%. Of the 54 colleges in the first three Mentor-Connect cohorts whose proposals have been completely processed by NSF, 36 or 67% have received funding in the New-to-ATE track, which has historically had a higher funding rate than other tracks. The 16 proposals submitted in 2016 by colleges in Mentor-Connect's fourth cohort are pending with NSF.

Craft and other workshop presenters noted that the skills Mentor-Connect teaches about NSF are applicable when applying to other ATE tracks and other NSF programs. "We're preparing you for the long haul—for success in the NSF funding program that can continue for many years," Craft said, urging community college educators to revise proposals based on reviewers' comments and resubmit if they are not awarded funding.

Tom Higgins, an NSF program officer, offered this analogy and encouragement during the closing Mentor-Connect session: "Putting together a winning NSF project proposal is a bit like putting together a championship basketball team. You might take some losses early in the season, but you've got to be thinking about the end. And, if at first you don't succeed revise, submit. Revise; submit. It takes time, but the time and the effort is worth it. If you give up after the first round, then you are giving up on a lot of potential for the future. So stick with it. Think about the long game."

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