Guess Who's Funding STEM initiatives in North Carolina

This might be a good time to start thinking about a science education grant from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. I’d like to tell you there’s a one in 50 chance of getting a grant through their Student Science Enrichment Program (SSEP)—because that’s pretty good odds, right?—but really, what I mean is, the BWF only awards grants to one state out of fifty. North Carolina. And that’s really terrific news if you live in there, because the program is active in every county in the state except Pamlico, and SSEPs are up and running in one-third of the state’s counties. So, I’m now going to assume that you’re North Carolina-based and incredibly curious about this program, chomping at the bit, in fact. And did I mention the application deadline is in five weeks?         

There’s a wealth of information available on the SSEP website— eligibility guidelines, program goals, and a thorough explanation of the selection process—but what is the Burroughs Wellcome Fund really looking for here, other than primary or secondary science education programs in the fine state of North Carolina?

Well, to start with the broad strokes: No individual recipients. No religious organizations. No programs that offer ten or fewer contact hours with the students. No curriculum development—although a “minimal level of teacher training that includes student participation” may be considered. Post-program evaluations (to be undertaken by applicants) must be built in to the proposal, because SSEP wants to support programs with quantifiable results.

But it’s when you start scrolling through past recipients that the real picture emerges. Hearing a lot of the usual science-ed language can too quickly make one ho-hum, “Oh, sure, maybe some after school programs for teaching kids how to use microscopes, maybe SSEP gives money for STEM tutoring or a field trip here or there, big whoop.” But a peek at the list of past SSEP awardees reveals a much more vibrant, outside-the-box grantmaking program.

One thing especially noteworthy is the overall scarcity of public schools in the mix of recipients, especially lately. In 2012, out of twelve grant recipients, less than half were public schools or school systems. In 2013, just one out of the twelve awards went to a public school. The rest of the SSEP grants went to places like the Marbles Kids Museum in Raleigh, which engages 20 middle-school students at a time in an intensive STEM training and public education program, then lets them practice their newly gained skills as part of the Marbles Summer Camp Program, where the students will work with younger “campers” as part of the camp’s science module. UNC Greensboro received a $180,000 SSEP grant to engage ESL middle-schoolers in STEM topic areas via music—picking up on the patterns and similarities between musical themes and modes and scientific exploration.

If this sounds like the kind of innovative, meaningful, and downright impressive programming your nonprofit organization dreams off, you may want to hop to it. The deadline for the Student Science Enrichment Program is April 10th, and more information can be found here.