The 81 college teams in the first four Mentor-Connect cohorts increased the geographic diversity of colleges submitting proposals to the National Science Foundation's ATE program: the selected colleges are in regions within 27 different states where an ATE grant has either never been funded, or has not been funded in the past 10 years. Since NSF started the ATE program in 1993 its competitive review process has awarded ATE grants in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. However, many of these grants have gone to colleges in metropolitan areas, and often these institutions have received multiple ATE grants.
Evidence that Mentor-Connect is adding geographic diversity to NSF-ATE proposals comes from the fact that 55 of the 61 colleges in the first three Mentor-Connect cohorts submitted proposals to NSF.
Evidence that Mentor-Connect is improving the quality of NSF-ATE proposals is indicated by the following: 22 of the 36 colleges in the first two Mentor-Connect cohorts that submitted proposals in either October 2013 or 2014 have been awarded grants of approximately $200,000 each in the program track Small Grants for Institutions New to ATE. This 61% success rate exceeds the ATE's program-wide funding rate of 22%.
While encouraged by these early results, Mentor-Connect Principal Investigator Elaine Craft notes that other factors such as the quality and focus of other proposals and the higher funding rate of the New-to-ATE track influence the success rate too.
So far, 10 of the 19 colleges in the third Mentor-Connect cohort that submitted proposals in October 2015 have received notices that their proposals have been funded. It may be several more months before NSF completes the review process for all the pending proposals.
Mentor-Connect encourages mentees to submit proposals to the New-to-ATE track because it offers novices a manageable scope of work. It also provides a challenging, but not overwhelming, platform for community college faculty members to learn about organizing and leading an innovative STEM education program, and working with an evaluator to analyze outcomes.
As Craft explained to the fourth cohort of mentees—20 two-person faculty teams from 20 colleges—in January at the Mentor-Connect Technical Assistance and Grant Writing Workshop in New Orleans, Mentor-Connect's proposal development strategies work whether a grant application is for $200,000 or $1 million and they translate well to other funders' application processes.
"What we want to do is prepare you for a long line of funding," she told the mentees.
Mentor-Connect’s Three-Pronged Approach
Mentor-Connect’s three-pronged approach uses mentoring, technical assistance, and digital resources.
Craft and her colleagues at the South Carolina Advanced Technological Education Center, an ATE center at Florence-Darlington Technical College in Florence, South Carolina, since 1996, led a comprehensive planning process to create Mentor-Connect. It involved NSF-ATE principal investigators, NSF-ATE program officers, current NSF-ATE grantees, potential grantees, the National Academy of Engineering, the American Association of Community Colleges, and IBM Corporation's Global Mentoring Program. This program, which is described in detail in Intelligent Mentoring: How IBM Creates Value through People, Knowledge, and Relationships, served as a model for Mentor-Connect.
The partner organizations and individuals designed Mentor-Connect as an ATE project to fill the void created by NSF's elimination in 2012 of the preliminary proposal review process for the ATE program; address the approximately two-thirds of the nation’s 1,123 community colleges that have never received NSF funding; better manage the rapidly growing number of requests received by ATE center principal investigators and NSF program officers related to grant proposal development and project management; and most importantly, develop grant writing and leadership skills among STEM faculty members at two-year colleges.
By intentionally leveraging the talents of individuals from within NSF-ATE, Mentor-Connect is creating a regenerative system for leadership development and knowledge transfer among two-year college STEM faculty to broaden the impact of the NSF-ATE program.
At its core Mentor-Connect involves one-on-one mentoring by some of the most experienced, successful principal investigators in the NSF-ATE program.
"The most important thing I do as a mentor is listen," said Peggie Weeks, a retired community college educator who also worked as an ATE program officer at NSF for several years.
In conversations at the January meeting where the mentees met their mentors for the first time, the mentors listened carefully to mentees' responses to questions and open-ended statements and then offered guidance on the preliminary steps of fleshing out their grant proposal ideas.
Mentors encouraged mentees to be simultaneously creative and realistic. As Weeks told her mentees, "Think about a multi-faceted project. Think about what your students' struggle with. Think about what you can accomplish in the next 2½ years."
In the months since their face-to-face meetings, the mentors and mentees have conferred regularly via conference calls and emails. The mentors provide advice and review drafts; they do not write the proposals.
Each year mentors and mentees also meet face-to-face at a day-long workshop before the High Impact Technology Exchange Conference (HI-TEC). This annual professional development conference is offered by a collaboration of ATE centers and projects. It will be held July 25 to 28 this year in Pittsburgh. The Mentor-Connect workshop at HI-TEC helps mentees through the final steps of preparing their ATE proposals for submission in September, several weeks before the October 6 deadline.
Unique Technical Assistance
In addition to the in-person workshops and mentoring, Mentor-Connect's unique technical assistance occurs during webinars that cover the granular details of proposal components and the prompt responses Mentor-Connect's staff provides to help-desk queries.
Two aspects of Mentor-Connect's thorough, purposeful pedagogy that stood out during the New Orleans workshop were the elevator speech session and the mock panel review.
The multi-hour session where each mentee team crafted a two-minute elevator speech was about much more than impressing the workshop audience. The elevator speech is a product that mentees will ideally use to garner colleagues' support for their ATE proposal plans.
The elevator speech's other critical function is as a first draft of their grant proposal abstract. When the mentee teams get busy with other responsibilities on they can use their elevator speeches to guide their proposal writing and data gathering.
Mentor Mel Cossette, principal investigator of the National Resource Center for Materials Technology Education at Edmonds Community College (Washington), had her mentees test the first drafts of their speeches with other workshop participants. The feedback they received motivated several more rounds of intense rewriting and work on their delivery. Cossette said the big applause her mentees received following their highly polished presentations boosted their confidence in their ideas for new STEM programs on their campuses.
Having mentees read and critique two previously submitted ATE proposals is a didactic experience for faculty who have had little or no experience with NSF's competitive proposal review process. Given that full NSF proposals, whether funded or unfunded, are rarely shared, the opportunity to read two actual proposals (with personally identifiable information redacted) dispelled some of the mystery about what proposals look like .
During the session, mentees were cast in the role of NSF reviewers who evaluate proposals' intellectual merit, broader impact, and budgets. The mentors guided discussions by asking questions about the strengths and weaknesses of the two proposals, and ultimately explaining why one was funded and the other was not.
Comprehensive Digital Resources
Mentor-Connect's digital resources include a key-word searchable digital library collection of information specific to preparing and submitting NSF-ATE proposals. These resources are available at http://www.mentor-connect.org to all aspiring NSF-ATE grantees, not just Mentor-Connect mentees.
The digital resources combine just-in-time instruction and on-going assistance to build capacity among community colleges. For instance, recent webinars covered how to incorporate evaluation plans and complete NSF documents, tasks that should be the current focus of anyone planning to submit an ATE application this fall. All Mentor-Connect webinars are recorded and archived for online retrieval. Shorter, more manageable tutorials have also been developed and provided in the repository of resources.
The Application for Mentor-Connect Mentoring
Mentor-Connect's next request for proposals will be posted on its website by July. The applications for Cohort 5 will be due October 10, 2016.
Relative to the NSF-ATE grant solicitation and private foundations' requirements, Mentor-Connect's application is simple.
It begins with a self-scored test of applicants' knowledge of the NSF-ATE solicitation. Mentor-Connect refers to this as a self-assessment because it expects that as college personnel form teams to apply for Mentor-Connect, they will evaluate whether they are ready to begin the process of developing an NSF-ATE proposal. The questions on the self-assessment are designed to stimulate careful study of the NSF-ATE grant solicitation.
Mentor-Connect's application requires a 300-word statement about the industry cluster or technical field that the two-person college team intends to target with the project it plans to propose to NSF-ATE. Each team member must also submit a 200-word personal statement about his or her interest in participating in the Mentor-Connect experience.
The final item in the application is an affidavit from a college administrator confirming the institution's intent to apply for an NSF-ATE grant in the Small Grants to Institutions New to ATE track.
Mentor-Connect's rubric considers whether a college is rural and has received other ATE-funded mentoring. The faculty attributes covered by the rubric include the gender, race, ethnicity, years of academic experience, and academic disciplines of faculty team members.
Mentor-Connect announces its decisions in November and the selected colleges' two-person faculty teams begin work with the mentors at the January workshop.
Mentor-Connect provides travel support for the two-person faculty teams and allows the colleges to pay for additional personnel to attend this workshop. Mentor-Connect included the additional personnel in its January meeting based on data from early cohorts. It showed that when a grant writer and supportive administrator are involved from the outset Mentor-Connect teams are more likely to submit a successful grant proposal than those that did not have this broad, on-campus support.