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Over and out?

The National Science Foundation is a fickle ally -- a generous sponsor, but fickle nonetheless.  In 1999 NSF created a program, Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education.  Like other programs, GK-12 (as it is known) grew a community of Principal Investigators, Project Managers, K-12 Teachers, and of course, Graduate Fellows.  Fellows pursue MS and Ph.D. degrees while contributing their research experiences in elementary, middle, and high school learning environments.  These are future science and engineering leaders skilled in linking the classroom to the laboratory and other workplaces.  

Individually and as teams, GK-12 participants identify with NSF, but moreover, with those toiling in other GK-12 projects.  An annual conference cements many ties and leads to what NSF seeks -- lessons learned and shared to maximize effectiveness and impact -- to change the face, and practices, of the global science and technology (S&T) workforce. 

By the numbers, GK-12 is a roaring success:  299 awards to 181 institutions in 47 states and Puerto Rico; over 10,000 Fellows, almost 12,000 teachers, over 6000 K-12 schools, and over 600,000 students participating (for more information, see www.gk12.org). But this is hardly the measure of GK-12.  For each of these participants are changed forever by program experiences.  They practice differently; they think differently; they become STEM recruiters, professors, mentors, coaches, and advocates.  They are better citizens of the nation and the world—all because their scientific sensibilities have been nurtured and exercised.  You can't hang a number on that.  Human aspiration and motivation are too complex to capture so neatly.

As all grantees know from the moment of their first award, NSF "seeds"; it does not "sustain."  This mantra is a polite way of warning that NSF funding is finite and not without "strings."  Accounting for the dollar investment is vital -- and testimonials alone won't do.  Hence the fixation on numbers. 

Yet NSF may not realize what its support, and imprimatur, has wrought.  For once a community matures, it wants to spread its good works and retain the "brand."  This is where the NSF mantra makes good on its promise:  you need to institutionalize and sustain on your own, find other sponsors . . .  over and out.

Such a reality just hit GK-12.  In the proposed FY2012 budget, NSF terminates the program:  no new awards.  After 10+ years and despite a glowing third-party evaluation, it has declared victory and is pulling out (for perspectives on the decision, see http://www.sciencemag.org/content/331/6021/1127.short.  This has happened with successful NSF programs before.  In this case, new education programs will be created.  Some will be redundant with what already exists in the Education and Human Resources portfolio, but they will begin the cycle of community development anew. 

Will the objectives of these new programs build on the lessons of GK-12?  Will they support an educational role for graduate students as an outgrowth of their research?  I'm not optimistic.

NSF should have a better transition plan, a way to harvest the lessons of a decade-old program and connect its alumni with other ongoing efforts in a systematic way. That's not "sustaining"; rather, it is preserving the legacy of its investments. 

The world is full of fickle allies.  As a veteran NSF groupie (grantee, former staff, and critic), the agency should be better than that. They owe it to the communities they foment -- and to themselves.

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