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How can I get a telescope for teaching an astronomy course?

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Dear GrantDoctor,

I am an instructor at a community college and I am currently developing an astronomy course. As part of the lab requirements, I wanted to have the students spend time using a telescope. Where do I look for small grants (under $6000) that would help buy a telescope and computer for our college?

--Todd Shepherd


Dear Todd,

Until recently, you would have applied for a National Science Foundation (NSF) Instrumentation for Laboratory Improvement grant, but that program has been absorbed into NSF's Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) program. CCLI has three program tracks, two of which might apply to your situation. Which track you choose depends on how ambitious you want to be.

The most obvious approach, and least interesting in the GrantDoctor's opinion, is the Adaptation and Implementation (A&I) program. The A&I program is for science educators who want to put into practice a proven approach to science education. In NSF's own words, "The objective of the CCLI program's A&I track is to promote the improvement of undergraduate education in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology for students with diverse backgrounds and career objectives, through the adaptation and implementation of materials, techniques, and practices developed elsewhere by others, which have been shown to be effective, in order to accomplish positive change at an institution."

A couple of points to notice: First, when you apply you'll want to emphasize the diversity (if any) of your institution's science students. If you serve minorities who are underrepresented in the sciences (that is, essentially all of them except Asians and Caucasians--women, too, are underrepresented in the physical sciences), include this information in your proposal. Likewise, your proposal should highlight information indicating whether your institution serves a student body that would otherwise be unlikely to receive significant scientific training or whether the graduates of your institution frequently go on to study science at 4-year colleges, or to scientific or technical careers.

The second point: Don't apply for a grant to buy a telescope. Rather, apply for a grant to implement a proven instructional methodology. The proposal should make a strong case that, as a package, the instructional methodologies you are proposing (including, but not limited to, the telescope) will "accomplish positive change" and improve student learning. My sources tell me the bar for this is fairly low. The educational plan you propose need not be peer-reviewed or NSF sanctioned. But you should show that you are familiar with current thinking and accepted "best practices" of astronomical pedagogy. You need to make the case that student learning will be enhanced.

The other program you can choose--the one that's more interesting and, perhaps, more risky--is the Educational Materials Development track. Here your objective will be not to implement proven methodologies, but to invent, prove, and disseminate new ones. In effect, you will be seeking funds to develop and market a product: a low-cost astronomy education module or course with a strong observational component. Since the telescope will be the centerpiece of your new module, you will need to show, specifically and in detail, how it will enhance the learning experience of your students--and other students at other institutions who would implement your new course. If you choose this program, you will need to take a more scholarly approach. Do some research, find out what other "products" (inexpensive astronomy courses with an observational component) are out there that might serve the same purpose. Then make your case: Show how your approach is different, how it builds on the experiences of the others, and how it is better. The real challenge may well be convincing the NSF reviewers that students can benefit from such a modest instrument.

Don't forget to include a sound, convincing dissemination plan. You'll be developing this new course not just for your own students, but for students at similar institutions elsewhere. How will you let them know about your new instructional package?

This is the riskier venture, no doubt about it. The A&I track is more of a sure thing. The GrantDoctor, no expert on astronomical pedagogy, has a hunch that if you can put together a package that provides students with a meaningful educational experience with a (presumably portable) $6000 telescope, you will have a marketable product on your hands, one that's worthy of NSF support. The world is full of small, underfunded institutions that would love to introduce students to astronomy in a meaningful way but don't have much cash. If the research you'll do in the coming weeks validates the Dr.'s hunch (that is, if your research shows there is, indeed, a demand for an inexpensive observational astronomy module), and if you can put together a sound educational product and a solid proposal, you might just be in business. Not only your own students, but potential rural stargazers worldwide may soon thank you.

Whichever track you choose, if you are an adjunct or part-time instructor, you will need to provide strong evidence of institutional support for you and your curriculum-development efforts. A letter from your department chair and/or a university administrator expressing real and material support for this project will be required.

Best wishes,

--The GrantDoctor

Attention Freelancers:

The GrantDoctor is compiling a list of freelance writers with scientific grant-writing experience who are available to help scientists write research grant proposals. If you are, or know, someone who does this kind of work and would like to be included in a free, permanent listing on Next Wave, please send e-mail to Doctor Grant at this address: GrantDoctor@aaas.org.

--The GrantDoctor

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