Analysis of the National Science Foundation’s Discovery Research K–12 ELL Projects

Background/Context: Educational and societal phenomena can converge to draw attention to a new focus, such as ELs and STEM, and then trigger new research interests. A funding program can play a critical role in shaping these new research interests by prioritizing specific research topics and designs or by requiring particular specializations of researchers.

Purpose of the Study: The study examined whether funding provided through the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Discovery Research K-12 (DR K-12) program has made a unique contribution to the research in the fields of science and mathematics education for ELs.

Research Design: This study compared the portfolio of DR K–12 projects focusing on EL science and mathematics education to the literature of non DR K-12 projects in terms of research topics, design, methods, scale, samples, and outcomes. The study also examined the disciplinary expertise of the DR K-12 investigators.

Data Collection and Analysis: The primary method used in this study was content analyses of the portfolio of DR K-12 projects and the literature of non DR K-12 projects in the fields of EL science and mathematics education. To develop comprehensive lists of the literature in these fields, two separate literature searches were conducted. Finally, content analyses of the curricula vitae of the DR K–12 projects’ PIs and co-PIs were undertaken.

Results: The DR K–12 EL projects in both science and mathematics education have made contributions to their respective fields in three areas in particular: (1) their use of mixed methods and experimental designs; (2) their emphasis on instruction and teacher preparation; and (3) their focus on middle school students. In addition, DR K-12 investigators are making connections across the mathematics/science content and EL/ELA areas and are incorporating expertise from both areas, often through the addition of advisory group members.

Conclusions: The results from this comparative study suggest that funding programs can shape research agendas by providing deliberate and targeted funding for priority areas. Federal government agencies should continue providing this funding to support much-needed research that is a necessary step to improving the quality of science and mathematics education for ELs.