One of the challenges to writing a compelling Broader Impacts section in your grant proposal is that we are not generally educated in this area. We are not high school teachers. Most of us have never made a museum exhibit, or done meaningful outreach of any duration. We generally do not even know what a high school curriculum in our field looks like, or what kinds of activities are desired.
So we invent something that sounds cool and hope it doesn’t sink the research we really want to do. In doing this we ignore all the research into pedagogy and learning that is out there. We ignore curricular standards. We ignore our own colleagues in other areas. This is terrible. Fortunately there are a few really simple fixes that will empower your efforts toward real impact in schools and communities.
First, ask the experts. Find teachers in your community and ask them what they need. Ask them how you and your team might help with a curricular need. They don’t get to teach whatever you invent. They have standards to meet, test goals to cover, whether it be higher level International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement (AP), or simply the standard for the US, SAT or ACT. You owe it to them and to yourself to figure out how your research can fit their needs. Make the link explicit. It is easy to find the education goals of all these programs. You could start with what the National Academies thinks is important.
Second, plug your projects into existing infrastructure. Does your university already have a way of helping public schools? Mine does, with the Institute for School Partnership. We also have a way of interacting with the community, The Gephardt Institute. We have a volunteer program for graduate students, the Young Scientists Program. What does your institution have? Use it!
You may feel this is not doing something totally new, but I disagree. It is a way of using existing infrastructure to find the audience for your cool outside-the-university modules. It is also a way of discovering what the teachers and educators that engage at this level most need. Innovate with your science activities and messages, not with the way of bringing them to the community.
There are other existing venues you can use, from farmer’s markets to museums. When I set up a science booth at the farmer’s market here, I sincerely hope others will want to use this venue too, just as they do with the physicists at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. My science cannot sustain it. Together as a community, we could have a permanent series of activities. Together we can bring change. If broader impacts are too scattered and not part of a broader infrastructure they will not actually endure. We have been putting broader impacts in NSF proposals for a long time now. What can we point to that we have actually changed? We are so creative and so hard working. Now it is time to tie with structures that will let our ideas best serve the community and endure.