Robert Merton on Innovation Risk
"Algorithmic Prediction of Health-Care Costs"

To New-Course or Not To New-Course? #NSFGrantProposals

I was chatting with a friend of mine via Skype the other day, and she mentioned that she was preparing a NSF CAREER proposal. One thing we talked about was the broader impact requirement, and in particular the fact that just about everybody seems to say they're going to create a new course.

In her previous try (and she doesn't apply to my directorate, so don't try to figure out who it is), she'd written she'd incorporate the results of her research into an existing course, and a reviewer had apparently taken issue with the fact that she wouldn't create a new course.

And we were wondering (i) how many researchers who get those awards and have said in their proposal that they were going to create new courses actually do so (she had someone in mind...), and (ii) whether it really helps the wide dissemination of the research to create a new course. Doesn't it make more sense to incorporate results into an existing course with already established enrollment, which will reach more students and is more likely to be offered in the long term?

I wonder how many new courses based on the NSF-funded research of one faculty member have consistently high enrollment. Will the students of other advisers really care about taking that new course based on research they haven't had a hand in shaping, when they hopefully find their own research more interesting and more valuable? (It's going to be a long six years for them otherwise.) If only the PI's own students care to take the course, then there is no point in pretending the work is being disseminated any more widely than through regular research meetings. [PI=Principal Investigator]

I'm not saying that creating new courses is always a bad thing. I'm saying, however, that creating new courses should not be the automatic answer to the NSF's Broader Impacts requirement, and a case should be made that a new course will attract students beyond the instructor's immediate research group in a sustainable manner.

If it doesn't, then really the researcher's tool for broader impact is really sending his or her doctoral students into the workforce after graduation and let them shine (which is an excellent method, as a matter of fact. It also happens to be my method of choice, although I do like to blog a lot.)

This entire discussion also assumes that incorporating research into doctoral-level teaching materials, whether through new courses or existing ones, is best to foster wide dissemination. I would also love to see novel research results trickle down to Master's level courses and perhaps senior electives, although of course they couldn't be the whole course.

Staying a bit longer with the idea of doctoral-level teaching as broader impact, implicit is the "push" approach to dissemination: students equipped with new tools push the knowledge in the real world once they graduate. But perhaps its cousin, "pull", should be preferred.

In the "pull" model, industry practitioners are made aware of the new tools through other means than the knowledge of a new hire (and surely the NSF expects more creative means than publishing papers in academic journals), and then insist that their employees implement these tools to gain an advantage over their competitors. After all, a new hire may have great, novel research tools at her disposal but they will only have an impact if her boss cares to have her use them.

I could write about this all day, but going back to the more manageable issue of achieving a broader impact through teaching: do you think creating a new course is best (if you were asked to evaluate standard NSF grant proposals of 3-year duration or longer) or do you favor incorporating results into an existing course?


For something truly ground-breaking (the next David Hilbert), I'd say new course. For something more typical and incremental (the next me), I'd say existing course (provided a course exists in which it would reasonably fit). I wonder what the half-life of all those new courses is?

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