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STEM Education Wins Big in 2nd Round of 'Innovation' Grants

The U.S. Department of Education today announced 23 finalists in line to win a grant under the "Investing in Innovation" contest, and STEM education is well-represented in the mix. (Important caveat: All applicants must secure a private match of a portion of their grant to get the federal aid.)

In fact, the largest single grant is expected to go to Old Dominion University Research Foundation, based in Norfolk, Va. It requested nearly $25 million for a "scale-up" grant aimed at providing high-need middle schoolers with increased access to challenging math courses.

For the big picture on this second round of the federal competition, dubbed "i3," check out my guest blog post over at Politics K-12. Also, just last week we provided an overview of some of the STEM-focused applications. I should note STEM was a very popular topic among applicants. One reason for that may be that STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education was given special emphasis in this round by the department, as it was identified as an "absolute priority." (I'll explain what this means later.)

Before I highlight the Education Department's picks in the STEM realm, here's just a very quick primer for those not familiar with the i3 program. It was established with funding from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and extended by Congress earlier this year as part of the fiscal 2011 budget. The program seeks to find innovative and promising education strategies that also have a good record of success. Awards this time range from up to $3 million for "development" grants to as much as $25 million for the "scale-up" award. The bigger the award, the more evidence of past success is required.

Five of the 23 successful applications identified "promoting STEM education" as an "absolute priority" in their application. And those plans accounted for a full one-third of the nearly $150 million jackpot. In addition, the department notes that three other applications selected include a strong STEM focus, even though they did not identify STEM as the "absolute priority."

So, who else won? And what are they planning to do?

In addition to Old Dominion, here's a very quick overview of the other four applicants selected that identified STEM education as their "absolute priority."

Applicant: National Math and Science Initiative
Amount Requested: $15 million
Project: Scale and replicate a program that aims to increase the number of students passing AP exams in math, science, and English in order to boost student achievement and college-readiness in the STEM subjects.

Applicant: New York Hall of Science
Amount Requested: $3 million
Project: Develop, implement, and evaluate a new system of technologies, called SciGames, designed to bridge formal classroom and informal playground science learning environments.

Applicant: Baltimore City Public Schools
Amount Requested: $3 million
Project: Evaluate and refine the district's Middle School STEM Summer Learning Program, which aims to provide high-need students with additional out-of-school time focused on math instruction and robotics.

Applicant: New York City Board of Education
Amount Requested: $3 million
Project: Develop and evaluate the district's "InnovateNYC" network of schools. (I'll be honest, I read the summary of this grant request several times and still don't really understand what they're planning to do other than promote "innovations" in STEM education. But I assume the folks reviewing the applications do!)

I should note that an Education Department said while the agency's final grant awards may not exactly match the requested figures, they're definitely in the same ballpark.

Now onto the three successful applications that the department highlighted as having a strong STEM focus, even as it was not the "absolute priority."

Applicant: New Visions for Public Schools
Amount Requested: $12.9 million
Project: Create the Accessing Algebra Through Inquiry project to drive student achievement in 30 high-need secondary schools.

Applicant: The College Board
Amount Requested: $3 million
Project: Expand a program that helps high-need students succeed in AP biology through "direct, actionable feedback that research shows to be effective in changing student outcomes."

Applicant: KnowledgeWorks
Amount Requested: $3 million
Project: Proposes to create two STEM-focused "New Tech High Schools" in South Carolina, with an emphasis on serving disadvantaged students in rural communities.

As in the first round of i3, the applicants were reviewed and rated by a set of independent peer reviewers convened by the Department of Education.

One key change this year was that the department added two new categories to the "absolute priority" list: promoting STEM education, and improving achievement and graduation rates for rural school districts. Basically, every applicant was required to select one of the five "absolute" priorities. In addition to STEM and rural education, the other three priorities are innovations that: support effective teachers and principals; complement the implementation of high standards and high-quality assessments; and turn around persistently low-performing schools.

Out of the 587 applicants in this round of i3 grants, 162 identified STEM as the "absolute priority," more than any other single category. As if readers of this blog need a reminder, clearly STEM is a pretty popular issue in education (and political) circles right now.

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