Grant Funds New Network for Public Science Education and Outreach

Grant Funds New Network for Public Science Education and Outreach


Northwestern University is part of a new multi-institutional initiative to encourage education and outreach efforts that extend the impact of federal scientific research. The National Science Foundation has awarded a $500,000 grant to a five-year initiative called the Broader Impacts and Outreach Network for Institutional Collaboration (BIONIC).

The BIONIC initiative will create a national network of professionals who will share ideas and resources to help scientists at research institutions design, implement and evaluate their “broader impact” activities. Through broader impacts efforts, as required by many federal grants, scientists educate the public and show the social relevance of their research.

The leadership team for BIONIC consists of the University of Missouri, Northwestern University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Iowa State University and Stanford University. Already 80 other universities are participating in the network led by these institutions.

Through the Office of STEM Education Partnerships (OSEP), Northwestern University provides its faculty with support to create effective broader impacts plans for their federal grants. Specifically, OSEP often helps scientists design and implement STEM education programs for grades K-12 that are both effective and sustainable. OSEP also helps scientists take their research to the public through publications, postsecondary education and mentoring.

“This new five-year award validates the important broader impacts work that OSEP has been doing on campus and also recognizes our leadership nationally,” says SESP research professor Kemi Jona, director of OSEP. “I look forward to working with my colleagues across the country to expand this broader impacts network and increase its impact.”

Susan Renoe of University of Missouri, the principal investigator for the project, says that broader impacts activities will broaden participation of underrepresented groups in STEM, enhance infrastructure for research and education, disseminate research results to enhance scientific and technological understanding, and increase economic development. Renoe, who is director of the Broader Impacts Network  at UM, says, “Broader impacts bring research out of the lab and into the lives of the American people, showing them the value of scientific discoveries and the roles they play in our daily lives.”

At Northwestern, OSEP acts as the bridge between Northwestern faculty and K-12 schools in the effort to educate about cutting-edge scientific research. Since 2006, OSEP has developed best practices for outreach to K-12 schools, especially by engaging students in cutting-edge STEM activities and encouraging participation in STEM fields.  

For example, the EcoCasting project provides authentic science education related to current scientific research on Great Lakes ecosystems. The hands-on activities of the EcoCasting curriculum, which uses computer modeling to explore ecosystems, food webs, bioaccumulation, and invasive species, are used in high school environmental science and biology classes. EcoCasting was part of Northwestern University professor Kimberly Gray’s research on stresses on food webs and remediation in Lake Michigan, which funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“OSEP works with Northwestern faculty and helps them develop and implement successful broader impacts plans,” says OSEP associate director Amy Pratt. Similarly, on a national level BIONIC will help universities build resources for developing broader impacts plans. A national BIONIC conference is being planned for spring 2015, according to Pratt.

“Broader impacts are extremely important in showing the relevance of funded science,” says Wanda E. Ward, head of the Office of International and Integrative Activities at the National Science Foundation (NSF). “Excellence in research and education are paramount, but explaining their relevance to the general public is an equally essential part of the mission of NSF.”                   

The National Science Foundation is a federal office created by the U.S. Congress in 1950 to promote the progress of science in the national interest. With a budget of $7.2 billion, NSF provides 24 percent of the funding for all federally supported basic scientific research at colleges and universities. The NSF receives approximately 50,000 grant proposals annually, all of which are evaluated on intellectual merit and broader impacts.

Photo (from left): Wanda Ward, head of the Office of International and Integrative Activities at the National Science Foundation, Kemi Jona of Northwestern, NSF director France Cordova, American Association for the Advancement of Science CEO Alan Leshner and BIONIC principal investigator Susan Renoe.

By Marilyn Sherman and University of Missouri
Last Modified: 9/1/15