STEPping Into the Future: The Impacts of NSF STEP Funding on the National STEM Enterprise
The Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program (STEP) was Initiated in FY 2002 by an Act of Congress, the Technology Talent Act of 2001 and subsequently implemented by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The goal of Type 1 grants was to increase the number of college graduates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), at the associate and baccalaureate levels, in response to the national priorities for U.S. global leadership in STEM fields. In December 2013, NSF announced that the STEP program (along with Widening Implementation & Demonstration of Evidence-Based Reforms (WIDER) and Transforming Undergraduate Science Education (TUES)) would be replaced by a new program, Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE). The IUSE program is intended to fund initiatives supported by these discontinued programs, while allowing more flexibility in the breadth of evidence-based practices to be implemented in proposed projects, along with an articulated emphasis on pedagogical research.
In response to the IUSE solicitation, STEP grantees have coalesced to articulate to NSF, and the broader STEM community, how the STEP program has positively impacted their students, faculty and institutions, and improved STEM education. The STEP community has successfully implemented numerous sustainable, innovative, exportable, and effective educational practices with STEP funding, even though the scientists and engineers responsible for these STEM advances were not necessarily experts in pedagogical research. Examples of the successful and sustainable implementation of best practices for STEM education and their impacts on student engagement and retention are presented here for two-year and four-year institutions across the country. As the IUSE program evolves, we strongly recommend that the STEP priorities of adoption of evidence-based practices to increase retention and graduation rates continue to be a significant focus for award decisions in the IUSE program. This is because we know first-hand of the demonstrated transformative power of STEP funding to the higher education enterprise through: 1) the advancement of enhanced pedagogical competencies by STEM faculty members, 2) the expansion of administrative and institutional support for STEM programs, and 3) the development of collaborative intra- and inter-institution networks for STEM retention and education. The STEP community strongly recommends that NSF continue to support these priorities in the IUSE program when making funding decisions:
1. Adapting and implementing sustainable and potentially scalable best practices and projects, including support for scaling up at the institution and across institutions.
2. Forming and sustaining partnerships and community networks, that build and maintain relationships and disseminate results, particularly venues like the STEP grantee meeting and STEPCentral (now STEM-Central.net).
3. Supporting creative new laboratory course and curriculum development, including funding for equipment.
4. Focusing on students, including diversity and inclusion, which complement workforce needs.
5. Recognizing the resource limitations of small institutions when assessing the education research component of the project.