By George Hademenos, Physics Teacher - Richardson High School & Norma J. Neely, Ed.D., Director - American Indian Institute University of Oklahoma
STEM-based instruction provides unique opportunities to foster cross-curricular collaboration among teachers and students of different subjects and backgrounds; lays the groundwork for team-driven, hands-on learning experiences through projects; promotes higher-order thinking, reasoning and inquiry skills; and adequately prepares students for active participation in STEM-related careers necessary to actively compete and succeed in the 21st century workforce. However, a school’s decision to engage students in STEM-based instruction comes at a cost…literally.
The mere inclusion of technology in a STEM classroom dictates the need for financial resources which, in most cases, arise from support at the state or district level. However, because the funds allocated to each campus are contingent upon curricular and instructional needs from a multitude of competing audiences and discipline areas, the financial support made available to STEM teachers is limited, at best. Thus, teachers who are committed to STEM-based instruction are relegated to funds from grants that they themselves must actively pursue. This article provides teachers with tips and suggestions for writing successful grants to obtain funds to enhance STEM-related lessons and activities.
Before you Begin Writing the Grant
The first, and probably most important, step in the grantwriting process begins with an idea. The idea should be novel, unique, and applicable to at least one if not more of the STEM disciplines. As one assesses the viability of an idea for potential funding, the following questions should be considered:
Is my idea out of the box?
Is your idea novel and unique or is it a minor tweak or two from a commonly accepted idea? The chances of gaining the reviewer’s attention and, thus, potential success in funding are increased for an idea that sets itself apart from mainstream ideas. Funding agencies are not likely to support an idea which, in essence, is a minor iteration of a proven concept. Although originality is important, the project should also be an appropriate use of class time and easily implemented by other teachers.
Is my idea based on a “hot topic?”
While STEM is an instructional approach that focuses on what content is presented in a classroom, there are other instructional strategies that focus on how content is presented. Several examples of these instructional strategies that are research-based and classroom-tested include project-based learning, differentiated instruction, and flipped classroom. Any proposed STEM-based idea that incorporates these types of instructional strategies further strengthens probability of funding success.
Have I tried out my idea in class?
An idea always sounds good in the thinking stage and becomes even more solid once the idea is sketched out in a proposal. But nothing replaces experience. Has the idea been tried out in the classroom? Prior trials of a proposed idea helps the teacher to better understand its practical implementation as well as identify potential pitfalls which should first be recognized by the teacher as opposed to being brought up by the reviewer.
How will my idea impact science instruction?
A major guiding principle of any funding agency is to fund projects that yield the “biggest bang for the buck.” Agencies have limited funds earmarked for a specific purpose and thus are motivated to fund proposals that will produce the widest impact to STEM education and promote potential growth for other teachers at other schools. A teacher must convince reviewers that the proposed idea provides the loudest bang.
Once the idea has been established, the teacher’s next step is to pursue appropriate grant opportunities. Which funding agency provides the best fit for the proposed project? On the federal level, one can explore the websites of the US Department of Education and/or the National Science Foundation and peruse the list of RFPs (request for proposals) that best align with the idea. Additional opportunities for funding include: Donors Choose, Toshiba/NSTA Exploravision, Toshiba America Foundation, and Toyota Tapestry Grant. In addition, some agencies promote underrepresented groups of teachers. The question then becomes which grant source is the best fit for a teacher’s project. The answer depends upon many factors including the extent of the proposed idea, number of students served, time interval required for the project, and type of materials requested. Most grants require proof that teachers have the ability to implement the program. There is no clear-cut formula to identify a suitable funding source. However, three questions that can help streamline the process are:
Is my idea aligned with the funding agency priorities?
When a funding agency publicizes an opportunity and solicits the submission of proposals, it is typically within the agency’s priorities and specific scope of interest. If the proposed topic is aligned with the agency’s scope of interest, then it is worthwhile to submit a grant proposal. If not, a teacher must carefully evaluate the agency’s priorities balanced against the topics covered within the proposed project to gauge a grant’s potential chance of success.
Are my needs small-scale or long-term?
Will the grant be used to fund a one-time project for one class or will it be used to fund a long-running program involving several classes over several years? Either scenario is appropriate for grants but the latter will require a larger dollar amount. As a result, the work required to complete the paperwork will be more involved, more extensive and will often involve the assistance of district officials to help coordinate the application for this amount of funding.
Will the grant provide adequate funding?
A proposal is typically developed with a clear indication of the materials and resources required for the proposed idea as well as the overall costs. The overall costs should fall within the funding window provided by the grant opportunity. If not, it is incumbent upon the teacher to explain what additional sources of funding will be sought to completely fund the project. Although it is possible to fund a project through multiple grants, the amount of work, time and effort is multiplied as well.
A major frustration of teachers involves students who do not read the instructions presented at the beginning of the assignment. That same frustration is experienced by grant reviewers who are confronted with reading a proposal that was not prepared according to the clearly established instructions and guidelines. Several questions to keep in mind as a teacher reviews the instructions for a particular grant opportunity include:
What are the page limits, font type and size, and page margins?
Be sure to follow instructions regarding page limits, font type and size, and page margins. Yes, it is possible to distinguish between 12 pt and 11 pt font size and reviewers typically have a ruler on hand to physically measure the page margins. Failure to adhere to these rules decreases a reviewer’s workload by one proposal and increases the number of rejection notifications by one.
Can tables, diagrams, or photos be included?
It has often been said that, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” This is true and can be very beneficial particularly when a grant application imposes strict guidelines with
regard to word count and page length. The picture in this case is any demonstration of support for the proposed idea such as tables, diagrams, or photos that serves to break the monotony of the application text and illustrate how the students will benefit from the proposed project. If the funding agency permits alternative sources of information in support of the proposed idea, the teacher should take full advantage.
Can supplementary materials be included?
Instructions for grant proposals are very clear and specific as to the requirements or expectations of the applicant. Some proposals are limited only to the information requested on the application form while others allow the applicant to submit supplementary materials to support the proposed idea, generally on an optional basis. Examples of supplementary materials can include, but are not limited to lesson plans; student work; recommendation letters from students, parents, colleagues and/or administrators knowledgeable about the teacher’s work; and authored publications relating to the proposed idea. Recommendation letters, particularly those written by students, provide powerful testimony to your classroom abilities and lend strong credibility to the proposed idea.
What are the timelines and due dates?
At the beginning of the application process, a teacher must locate and adhere to the due date. It is the date established by the funding agency that all applications must be received in order to receive full consideration. Submitting an application even one day after this date will be a waste of time and a lesson in futility.
All of these questions and suggestions might seem petty and insignificant. However, one should keep in mind that many teachers across the city, state, or nation are applying for the same limited amount of dollars to conduct STEM-based instruction in their classroom. Funding agencies are not lacking for prospective applicants seeking financial support. Failure to understand and abide by the directions generally is grounds for immediate elimination from the review process.
During the Grant Writing Process
The hardest part of the process is about to begin and the suggestions that follow are designed to assist the teacher during the grant writing process.
• Write to an audience of generalists, not specialists.
A teacher brings a wealth of experience and interest of a topic into a grant proposal. Although this background demonstrates a mastery of the subject matter, the reviewers will most likely not have a similar background. It is imperative that the teacher communicate their proposed idea to any reviewer.
• Check for grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
After spending a significant amount of time drafting the proposal, rewording sentences, restructuring paragraphs and reviewing the resultant product a multitude of times during the process, a teacher finds it fairly easy to be satisfied with the final product. After all, a teacher always uses a word processing program that has spell check, and thus, any and all inadvertently misspelled words or grammatical errors will be caught. Please note that no spell check program, feature or frequency of operation replaces the accuracy of the author’s eyes. If one misspelled word, grammatical inconsistency or punctuation misplacement is recognized, a reviewer is likely to let the error pass and attribute it to author oversight. If these errors become a frequent occurrence, the reviewer is likely to let the proposal pass and attribute it to author incompetence.
• How will you use the requested funds?
Just as the words of a grant proposal are vital in explaining the what of a project, equally as important are the numbers within the budget of a proposal that explain how much the project will require. The budget is a mandatory part of a proposal in which the teacher lists the equipment, materials and resources required to bring the proposed idea to fruition, the approximate cost for each of the requested items, and a justification of how the item will be used in the project.
Create your budget in table form.
When it comes to the budget, presentation is everything. If given the opportunity as dictated by the guidelines, the teacher should prepare the budget in table form, with well-defined columns for the item requested, justification of the item, cost per unit item, number of items needed, and the total amount for the item. At the bottom of the table, an additional entry under the column for total amount for the item should be available for the teacher to indicate the total amount of funds requested. A budget in table form makes it easier on the reviewer’s eyes and more likely to warrant a positive response.
Is the total requested dollar amount within the scope of the funding opportunity?
All grant opportunities have well-defined funding windows for submitted proposals. The total amount of funds requested for the proposed idea should be within that window. Although it is possible that a proposal that exceeds the upper limit of the funding window might be considered, the funding agency will be more likely to apply their limited funds to proposals that are within the funding window, as clearly stated in the instructions. This is another example of why it is important to read the instructions.
Is the requested cost for each item reasonably priced?
A grant proposal presents an opportunity for a teacher to integrate a learning experience in the classroom using specific resources critical to its successful implementation. Although a teacher is always looking for the best resources to bring to the classroom, it is important to realize that best usually means expensive. While it is noble for a teacher to want the best for his/her students, each proposal has a limited funding window and the more that costs are taken up by a single resource, the number and cost of additional supplies required for the project is reduced. All project items should be selected such that their total combined cost fits well into the agency’s funding window.
Are all requested items reasonably justified?
Each item in the proposal should be vital to the project’s success and be easily justified in support of its role. The teacher should refrain from the inclusion of items which could be useful to the project and instead focus only on those items that will be useful to the project.
Does the arithmetic add up?
The most pertinent aspect of the budget refers to the total amount of funds requested by the teacher. Simply put, do the numbers add up? It is incumbent upon the teacher to perform the budget calculations several times and, to be sure, invite several colleagues to perform the same calculations to back up the final result. Just as you pore over the numbers with a calculator to ensure the total amount requested is correct, so too will the proposal reviewers. This is one area where agreement is mandatory.
• Ask at least one other person to proofread your grant.
Given the time and effort invested by the teacher to develop the proposal, it is always beneficial to have respected colleagues review the proposal and offer their comments. Although these colleagues could be educators of the same background or teaching field, the teacher would be better served to seek comments from colleagues who are far removed from the teacher’s background – an English teacher, a principal, an instructional specialist, or a coach. They will not be as informed and knowledgeable about the idea, related topics and inherent content as the author. However, their comments provide an opportunity for the teacher to address gaps which might not have been evident to the author but would beg an explanation to ensure that the reviewers, regardless of their background, are able to understand the proposed project and be able to render a thoughtful decision.
• Respond to critiques and criticism in the spirit it was given.
If you are thin-skinned and sensitive to criticism, then writing grants is probably not for you. Every person who decides to write a grant does so thinking (and in most cases knowing) that they are the most qualified to write the grant, their idea is the best conceived, and their proposal is exceptionally written. Any criticism strikes to the heart of these feelings and can evoke a veiled response driven in anger, confusion, or frustration. The absolute last thing a teacher should welcome is a proposal returned by a colleague reviewer that is unmarked. If it is unmarked, it could imply one of two scenarios: (1) it a perfectly written proposal or (2) the colleague chose not to voice any corrections of the proposed idea. If the former scenario is the explanation behind the unmarked proposal, then one can only hope that the reviewers feel the same way.
After the Grant Has Been Submitted
The grant proposal has been drafted, undergone revisions, scrutinized by colleagues and submitted by the proposal deadline. The majority of the work has been done but now comes the toughest part − waiting for a response. Every funding agency typically responds to an applicant with a receipt of confirmation, informing the teacher that the proposal has been received, explaining a brief overview of the review process, and a timeline through which decisions will be made and communicated to the applicants. The receipt of confirmation typically follows within several days of the proposal submission. If no response is received within one week of submission, the teacher should follow up with the agency to check on the proposal’s status.
If a teacher is successful in getting the grant, then congratulations are in order for a job well done. Plans can be made to purchase the equipment/supplies, and instructional materials can be developed to implement the project in the classroom. The teacher should keep an organized and detailed account of all expenditures which will most likely be required in a completion report. If a teacher is not successful, then it is perfectly acceptable to be disappointed. The teacher should reflect on areas of improvement, revise if needed, and then resubmit the proposal to a different agency offering a similar opportunity for funding.
A teacher’s decision to write a proposal is not an easy one. It is a major commitment of time, energy, and effort that acts concurrent to the daily and weekly responsibilities of creating lesson plans, teaching, faculty meetings, and tutorial sessions. A teacher might wonder many times through the process: “Is all of this work to develop a grant proposal worth it?” The answer to this question can be found by simply asking the students who will benefit from the grant.