Obtaining Grant Support for Undergraduate Research in the Geosciences

By Jeff Ryan, University of South Florida and Jill Singer, Buffalo State College

Conducting research with undergraduates can be done with modest budgets and internal (e.g., institutional) funding but many programs require substantial resources and require faculty to seek sources of external support. Sources of support can come from a variety of sources including: foundations, including local/regional private foundations; alumni donors; and government (local, state and federal) agencies. This page highlights possible funding sources that provide opportunities for faculty seeking to support undergraduate research efforts and student support to conduct research and present their results at regional and national professional meetings.

Granting Opportunities for Faculty

Grants to support classroom efforts to help prepare undergraduate researchers and to integrate research experiences into the curriculum

Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (TUES): The core funding program in support of the improvement of college-level STEM education is the Transforming Undergraduate Education in STEM (TUES) Program. This program is the successor to the Course, Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) Program, and the structure of funding opportunities and proposal deadlines are similar. The primary objective of the TUES program is to improve the quality of undergraduate STEM education wherever it is delivered within formal curricula, which is to say that the program seeks to support educational improvements to STEM and STEM-related courses and coursework targeted at undergraduates, both within degree programs and as a part of general education requirements. Undergraduate Research is viewed as a high-quality educational activity from the perspective of the TUES Program, and can be the pedagogical strategy of a proposed project in the context of formal instruction. 

The TUES program offers funding for a range of education-related activities, and at several different scales, but for most investigators the appropriate funding instrument is a Type 1: Exploratory project, which provides up to $200,000 in support of changes that primarily impact education at one's own institution. 

  • Who should submit a TUES proposal? A misconception regarding TUES and other NSF funding programs is that early-career faculty or others with limited granting experience are less competitive or in some manner less qualified or sufficiently prepared to submit proposals. In fact, NSF actively seeks to support new investigators, and you get additional programmatic attention as a Beginning Investigator until you receive your first NSF grant award. The TUES Program in particular encourages new performers, and the TUES Program Officer cohort (every Program Director in the Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE) is involved with the TUES Program) expects that a Type 1 TUES project will in fact be the first NSF funding experience for many of the investigators the program supports. Reviewers also are encouraged to consider the career stage of the proposers in their reviews and that DUE supports building capacity especially among early career faculty, research faculty that desire to become more engaged in education and have ideas about bringing cutting edge research findings into the undergraduate classroom, and faculty at institutions with a limited track record of prior NSF funding.

The TUES program supports several different kinds of funded activities:

  • development of new learning materials and/or practices,
  • implementation of best classroom practices or exemplary materials for new student audiences,
  • faculty development aimed at disseminating best practice, development/testing of educational assessment tools, and
  • educational research targeting the undergraduate experience.

The most commonly encountered in Type 1 projects are implementation of exemplary practices or resources, primarily targeting students on the Principal Investigator's campus. The TUES program is unique among NSF funding opportunities in supporting implementation, but specifies that successful projects should address an educational issue of broad importance, so that the results can inform others in the discipline or other disciplines. 

While the TUES solicitation clearly states that the acquisition of instrumentation is allowed, many investigators do not take full advantage of this. If undergraduate research is a major focus of the proposal, investigators should carefully consider their options and select a model that is both student-friendly, robust, and generates research-quality data that are of a quality that can be presented at professional meetings and used in journal articles. While this might translate into a more expensive model, building a case for why a more expensive piece of equipment is preferred over a less costly model should be made. Most often, reviewers and program officers are sensitive to the differences in models and are supportive of undergraduates collecting data that is accepted by researchers in the field. On the other hand, it is important that proposers do not request models that significantly exceed what is needed to support student research and to consider where the instrument will be housed and how the institution will provide resources necessary to ensure that the instrument will be maintained, repaired, and/or upgraded. 

Competitive TUES proposals and successful TUES projects share a set of key elements, the details of which (including some examples) are outlined in the TUES program solicitation:

  • The proposed project needs to be innovative, in that it brings best educational products, practices and ideas to your classroom (and potentially to others), and it should help advance the practice of education in its discipline and potentially in others.
  • The proposed project should be student-focused, emphasizing STEM learning, and well-aligned to the perspectives and predilections of today's students.
  • The rationale and methods should be built upon the existing base of knowledge on education in your discipline, and it should contribute to the advance of that knowledge.
  • The proposed project should support interaction with others addressing similar issues and with experts in evaluation and educational psychology.
  • The project must define measurable outcomes focused on student learning, as well as building the educational community and contributing to the growth in understanding of STEM education, and include effective strategies for measuring progress toward these outcomes as the project develops and when the project is completed.

Writing an effective TUES proposal involves becoming conversant in key literature and resources on geoscience education, and making connections with individuals and/or offices involved in doing educational assessment or project evaluation on your campus or on another campus. The "literature" of STEM education differs from the research literature in that extensive web-based information resources are available, supported by the NSF and other Federal agencies. The National STEM Digital Library seeks to make education-related information from across the STEM fields accessible, and supports "pathways" focused on disciplines and/or grade levels, as well as topics (i.e., the CLEAN Pathway focuses on climate-related resources) and content type (Teacher's Domain, managed by WGBH Television, provides access to a range of digital video and media resources). The SERC site provides numerous resources on both pedagogical strategies and teaching resources. It is essential that proposers become familiar with existing resources and in their proposal, indicate how the project is informed by and builds upon previous work in the geosciences or in another discipline. For example, the pedagogical strategy being adapted and implemented might be based on a proven strategy in physics, chemistry, or another STEM discipline. If the proposed project involves developing curricular resources, it is very important that the proposer(s) summarize what already exists and how their proposed project extends the work of others or fills and important gap in available resources. In some cases, advances in tools and technology now make possible opportunities for students, including research opportunities, that previously were limited to larger research institutions. 

Advanced Technological Education (ATE): This NSF-DUE funding program aims to support faculty at two-year colleges in the development of new academic programs. This program is generously funded, and provides funding at a range of levels, including multi-year projects (up to $900K over three years), and small (~$150K) pilot projects for "Institutions New to the ATE Program." 

The primary focus of the ATE program is on workforce development, which is to say that part of the project must involve an evaluation of local or regional workforce needs, and a necessary outcome of an ATE project is the development or improvement of a degree program, the viability of which is documented by the production of employable graduates. Undergraduate research, as it can be approached in the two-year college setting (see Undergraduate Research at Community Colleges, a recent CUR publication for insights on this issue), can be an integral part of an ATE project in the context of workforce training.

The ATE Program provides extensive support for Principal Investigators submitting project proposals through its funded Centers of Excellence, the aims of which are to provide foundational information, services, and support to ATE Projects and proposers. Geoscience-related topics that have been addressed in the ATE Program include marine technologies (supported by the the Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) Center), environmental technologies (supported by the Advanced Technology Environmental and Energy Center (ATEEC)), and geospatial information systems technologies (supported by the GeoTech Center). 

Grants supporting undergraduate research activities

Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU): The REU Program is the primary NSF-wide funding opportunity for obtaining support for undergraduate research activities. Funding is available at two scales: 

  • REU Supplements to active NSF research grant awards. These requests typically seek stipend and related support for 1-2 undergraduates to participate in an ongoing funded project.
  • REU Sites: These are full proposals to conduct a summertime and/or academic year undergraduate-driven research enterprise with a cohort of undergraduate students (usually 8 or more). In the Geosciences two models for these projects are common:
    • A "center" model where individual students work with different faculty or researchers in a department or research laboratory on a range of different projects, with cohort-based professional development activities and opportunities to share research findings with each other;
    • A "project" model where the student cohort works as a research team under the supervision of a group of faculty on a single over-arching project. Community activities also are important to establish and strengthen the community and can include information about careers and graduate school as well as opportunities for social interactions.

In both cases, the expectation for an REU project is that they will provide a complete research experience for students (from project identification/research design to presentation/publication), and that students will be part of a cohort and thereby begin to establish a network of professional connections among their REU peers and faculty mentors. Students must also be supported financially while participating in research, at the level of a weekly stipend amount defined in the REU Program solicitation or higher. Many REU projects include travel money for participants to present their findings at a regional or national meeting (often these are GSA or AGU meetings, although other venues are possible). Increasing attention is being paid to project evaluation and assessment of the experience on student learning (skills and content knowledge). The budget request can include hiring a person to coordinate the project evaluation. Proposers should be prepared to work closely with the project evaluator and ideally the evaluator should be identified prior to submission of the proposal to ensure that the evaluation component is well-tied to the overall goals and activities of the REU proposal. 

The REU Program solicitation provides detailed instructions on the construction and submission of Supplement and Site proposals. Supplements can be requested at any time during the award duration of the active NSF research grant, while Sites have Foundation-wide annual submission dates based on the Directorate or Office to which they are targeted. NSF also hosts a list of currently funded REU Site projects

Research at Undergraduate Institutions (RUI): The RUI Program is an NSF-wide solicitation aimed at supporting the research activities of faculty at Predominantly Undergraduate Institutions (PUI's). The RUI Program is an option available to PUI faculty and when proposers submit an NSF research proposal in response to a research solicitation, they can opt to submit under the RUI Program, which provides up to five additional pages of space in the Project Description of the proposal to discuss the institutional and departmental benefits and impacts of the proposed project. In addition to supporting research projects, the RUI Program also funds (cooperatively with the Major Research Instrumentation Program) instrumentation facilities to be shared among PUI institutions, and offers a unique variety of supplement request, called a Research Opportunity Award (ROA), in which a PUI faculty member can be supported to participate in the research program at a larger institution through a supplemental support request made for one of the larger institution's active NSF grant awards.

Undergraduate research activities, mentored by PUI faculty, are an expectation activity in all proposals submitted to the RUI Program. As with the REU Program, the proposed undergraduate activities should provide a complete student research experience, and the expectation is that students will be financially supported while participating in and presenting their research. 

Including Undergraduate Research in a Standard NSF Research Proposal: There are no limitations in including undergraduate researchers in standard NSF research proposals - in fact, undergraduate research participation can be an valuable activity to include under the section on Broader Impacts (as per the NSF review criteria) and can strengthen the proposal in review. However, it is important to provide detail on the nature of the student research experience in the proposal, and to budget the funds necessary to support student research activities (for stipend, travel, and meeting presentations of results) as appropriate). The REU Program solicitation, provides good guidance on the specifics of budgeting and describing undergraduate research activities which can be used in any standard NSF grant proposal. One key point worth noting in setting up the budget for undergraduate research activities is that these should be listed under Participant Support Costs on the NSF budget pages, and this budget category is not included in the project's overall Indirect Costs calculation.

Other granting opportunities for Faculty to support Undergraduate Research

The ACS-Petroleum Research Fund: This foundation offers several funding opportunities targeted to faculty at predominantly undergraduate institutions: 

The Petroleum Research Fund supports a wide range of research in "the Petroleum Field", which includes a number of geoscience subdisciplines. It is the proposer's responsibility to explain in the request how his or her proposed research fits within the petroleum field.

The Educational Component of the National Cooperate Geologic Mapping Program (EDMAP): "EDMAP is the component of the NCGMP that trains the next generation of geologic mappers. The NCGMP allocates funds to colleges and universities in the United States and Puerto Rico through an annual competitive grant process. Every Federal dollar that is awarded through this program must be matched with university funds. Geology professors, who are skilled in geologic mapping, request EDMAP funding to support undergraduate and graduate students at their college or university in a one-year mentored geologic mapping project that focuses on a specific geographic area.

Although individual projects last for only one year, they may build upon the results of previous years' efforts. EDMAP geology professors and their students frequently work closely with STATEMAP and FEDMAP geologists who may be mapping nearby."

Funding Opportunities for Undergraduate Researchers:

Modest funding is available to undergraduate student proposers to support their research efforts and to help support the presentation of their research at geoscience professional meetings. There are as well a range of internship and related summer opportunities for students seeking research experiences.

Granting Opportunities targeting Undergraduate Researchers:

  • The Sigma Xi Grants-in-Aid for Research Program provides support of up to $1000 for student research proposals. The majority of available funds are targeted to student applicants whose faculty mentor is a Sigma Xi member, but other students may apply as well.
  • A number of Geological Society of America Sections offer small research granting opportunities targeting undergraduates, and travel grant support for student presenters is available for all GSA Section meetings and the GSA Annual Meeting.
  • The mission of NASA-Supported Space Grant programs in every US state and in the US Territories is to help expand the number of students involved in space-related research and investigations, which they do in varied ways. To see the opportunities in your state, begin here.
  • The Association of Women Geoscientists sponsors a range of scholarship opportunities for graduates and undergraduates.
  • A list of undergraduate research funding sources from the On the Cutting Edge Early Career module.

Writing the grant proposal... Where can you find help?

The two key steps in writing a successful grant proposal to the NSF or any other funding agency are:

  • Reading the proposal solicitation carefully, and responding to its requirements in your proposal, and
  • Communicating with the cognizant Program Officers about proposal ideas early on to identify the correct funding opportunities to apply for, and to familarize them with your research and intended proposal request.

Generally, education-oriented solicitations are highly detailed and generally provide significant guidance in how to write the proposal. However, research solicitations are more open-ended providing fewer specific details about what should be included in the project description (although the MRI solicitation includes some specific requirements about the project management plan). Because of this, it is highly recommended that proposers contact the Program Officer well in advance of the program deadline about their particular idea. In advance of contacting the program officer, it is helpful to review funding trends, level of funding for projects, and the kinds of things that have been supported. Much of this information easily can be found using FastLane awards search and often the webpage containing the program solicitation includes a link to recently funded projects. Fortunately, through CUR, On the Cutting Edge, and other NSF-supported faculty development programs, a lot of support is available for geoscience faculty seeking to write grant proposals:

  • The CUR Dialogues are held annually in the Spring in Washington DC and are open to all CUR members. The Dialogues are all about funding: there are sessions with Program Officers from NSF and a range of other Federal agencies, as well as some private granting organizations, along with the opportunity for one-on-one time with Program Officers to discuss proposal ideas and learn more about funding agencies.
  • CUR's Proposal Writing Institute is offered annually the Summer for CUR members and member institutions. This is a multi-day workshop the aim of which is to help participants write their grant proposals - the facilitators are experienced proposers and former NSF and other granting agency Program Officers. The goal of the workshop is for participants to leave with a proposal ready for submission.
  • The On the Cutting Edge Early Career Faculty pages at SERC includes a range of grantsmanship resources for young faculty, including "sanitized" copies of successful grant proposals. The annual Early Career Faculty Workshop includes a visit to the NSF and meetings with geoscience and education Program Officers.
  • Resources for Transforming Undergraduate Geoscience Education (RTUGeoEd): is a new NSF-supported project aimed at supporting geoscientists who are seeking to submit NSF education proposals (to TUES and related programs). RTUGeoEd events will occur annually at AGU and GSA meetings, there will be linked events with Cutting Edge/NAGT workshops, and there will be several longer workshops where participants can attend to complete a TUES or related geoscience education proposal for submission.