The CADRE Team
Exploratory research is at the beginning of the evidence-building continuum. Mike Steele, the current DRK-12 program lead, describes Exploratory projects as research to “establish the basis and development of an intervention. They explore relationships between design features and outcomes and must have a conceptual framework or theory of action grounded in the literature. Exploratory projects need to provide some evidence of factors associated with learning outcomes.”
The DRK-12 program receives fewer Exploratory proposals than, for instance, design and development types, even though the former type of project and research may be particularly well suited for early career researchers. Guidance on this type of proposal is available in the DRK-12 program solicitation. The DRK-12 Exploratory Study project type is consistent with the descriptions and examples of Early Stages and Exploratory types of research and development in the Common Guidelines for Educational Research and Development. For more information about EArly-Concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) funding and how it differs from Exploratory proposals to specific funding programs such as DRK-12, read below.
Tips from DRK-12 awardees of exploratory project type grants
CADRE asked recent awardees of Exploratory grants what advice they have for researchers who may be considering submitting this type of proposal. Here’s what they had to say:
“Write an Exploratory proposal that captures the innovative ideas of your dreams and don't be discouraged if it is not funded the first time. Critically review any feedback and try again!”
– Nastassia Jones
“For me, writing the proposal for ReLaTe-SA was the culmination of a process, which took several years, of observing middle and high school algebra classrooms and trying to describe what seemed to be missing. It wasn’t teachers’ mathematical knowledge – the teachers I observed seemed very knowledgeable, of both mathematics and good teaching practice. It was that the subject presented in these classes felt discursively like a very different subject from the one I have seen successful STEM students and professionals engaged in, where people use creativity and flexibility to solve problems, make and test conjectures, and embrace ambiguity.
What helped me move from this vague state of discontentment to an actual DRK-12 Exploratory proposal was finding the specific part of the literature on mathematics learning that spoke to what I was noticing and provided useful language for it. I spent a few months learning about the work of Anna Sfard and her colleagues and thinking about how some of the building blocks of commognitive theory could be expanded into a richer descriptive framework for algebraic discourse. My advice for researchers who want to submit Exploratory proposals is to find a problem of teaching and learning that is compelling for you, see who has studied that problem either in the same setting or in a setting that has some of the same characteristics, and find out what theoretical and analytical tools they are using. Often there is an opportunity to apply these tools in a novel setting and see what holds up, what needs elaboration or modification, and where the unique characteristics of your setting open up completely new or different questions. This will help you develop a project idea that is compelling for you, because you’ll have the opportunity to learn about an interesting problem through a new lens, and also adds to the field’s understanding of the theory or constructs you are using.”
– Cody Patterson
“Find ways to get early input and formative feedback from your target audience and stakeholders, such as by including them in participatory design and/or co-design.
Rather than (over-)promising many concrete outcomes, consider insights on the process of your research as a valuable outcome in itself.
Find good collaborators who have complementarity expertise, and who are open to taking risks with you.
Rather than immediately commit to a specific approach, context, or product, be open to exploring, adapting to, and learning from contrasting approaches, contexts, and products.
Build in time for iteration and refinement based on interim research findings”
– Camillia Matuk
“Do not hesitate to take a small innovative project or idea that you have been working on and turn it into an Exploratory NSF project.
Seeking internal funding at your institution is a way to pilot an idea that could lead to an NSF Exploratory project.
You need enough of a hunch about how to work on the idea and the potential outcomes and implications of the project to write a proposal that explains your process of exploration and the significance of potential outcomes, but you do not have to have everything figured out.
The research method of Design Research is a good match for an Exploratory study.
Exploratory projects need both practical and theoretical outcomes and having both better positions you to seek further NSF funding following an Exploratory project.
Identify and build from the research design and questions of similar studies in a related field or on a related topic.
Continuous clarity of project goals, research questions, and outcomes is critical to exploratory work as they may shift as the Exploratory research proceeds.
Even though it is an “exploratory” project you need to be intentional and focused regarding data you propose to collect and be clear how you will use it to answer your research questions. It is easy for data collection to become overwhelming quickly and you could end up collecting a lot of data you never use.
Partner with other early-career researchers whose research areas of interest and expertise complement your own.
Partner with someone who has past successful experience seeking external funding.”
– Ruth Heaton and the Co-Learning Math Teaching Project Team
“I think the smartest thing I did in service of my proposal was to reach out to a program office in advance of completing the proposal. A short meeting with a program officer helped surface things that were unclear about my plan and pushed me to think a bit more critically about my approach and the rationale for my work.”
– Anna DeJarnette
“It is important to attend NSF webinars and learn from NSF program officers when there are opportunities to do so. I also recommend talking with or emailing experts in the field about being advisory board members on your projects. It can also be helpful to talk to staff at your university that can help with writing grant proposals and designing grant budgets. A good first step is attending NSF webinars; there is a lot of important information presented and you have opportunities to ask questions to the presenters (who are often program officers).”
– Casey Hord and Anna DeJarnette
“When submitting an Exploratory proposal, we highly recommend interdisciplinary collaborations! Interdisciplinary collaborations encourage each member to think in new and different ways about educational interventions. The collaboration produces a rich and complementary relationship where each person brings expertise in different areas to breathe life into a project. When considering an NSF proposal, first consider your overall research agenda goals for the collaboration. Then consider how an Exploratory project is the first step to this overall research agenda. For us, our overall goal is to support K-12 students to build ecological literacy and green building literacy and consider the overlap between these two disciplines. The EYE unit was our first step toward that goal.”
– Laura Zangori and Laura Cole
“First steps in deciding to apply for an Exploratory project
Choose a research topic that is under-investigated but meaningful to you and the field.
When you do a literature review, you find little prior research that answers the questions that you want to know or sources that adequately answer the questions you have.
When you research organizations that are relevant to the issues and/ or the population of interest, you find limited approaches, resources, curricula etc. designed specifically to address their needs.
Shaping your intervention
It is critical to find a partner site that shares your goals and understands the intentions of the work, especially because it is an area that is under-researched.
Once you have your partner site, collaboratively shape the intervention (e.g., professional development) to fit the partner context. This will support buy-in from key personnel and identify participants who provide an appropriate match between participants’ needs and intervention goals and plans.
Once you have been funded
If your initial research findings indicate that a specific intervention activity would further the development of participants and further explicate your proof of concept, you might consider applying for a supplement.
As you begin to analyze preliminary findings, begin to think about which aspects or questions might be appropriate for the early stage design and development strand.”
– Judy Storeygard, Brandon Sorge, and Audrey Martinez-Gudapakkam
“Putting together (and subsequently getting) this NSF grant has been one of the most transformative experiences of my academic career. The most impactful part of the process was the development of a network of researchers who were willing to support me in the work of the grant. When I first started brainstorming the proposal it was for a passion project, so I didn’t have extensive contacts in the field or even know what the field really looked like. I reached out to one colleague to share my idea with her, and she introduced me to one of her colleagues, who subsequently joined the grant as an advisory board member, and from there it snowballed into an avalanche of introductions! The conversations with these new contacts, now colleagues, were incredibly informative. Some of the biggest take-aways I have:
Don’t hesitate to reach out to people! I “cold” emailed researchers whose papers I had read and they were more than happy to have a conversation and offer advice (some joined my advisory board).
If you are thinking about submitting a proposal definitely do it! Even if it doesn’t get funded in the first round, the process of putting it together will be very meaningful.
Not all your plans will work out and that’s ok! Some of our best laid plans just don’t work, and that’s science! But learning what doesn’t work is just as important as learning what does work. And in fact, some of my lessons on what doesn’t work inspired a Design and Development proposal that I will be submitting in the fall.”
– Sarah Fankhauser
What about EAGERs?
You may have an idea and wonder if it’s more suited for EArly-Concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) funding. To help determine which funding mechanism (Exploratory project type or an EAGER) is the right fit for your idea, ask yourself if the project concept fits with an existing funding program such as DRK-12. If so, it’s not appropriate for an EAGER. While EAGERS are not meant as a way to collect preliminary data, they do support exploratory work in early stages on risky but potentially transformative research ideas that don’t fit into the parameters of another NSF funding program. NSF invites researchers to email your 1-page concept description to a program officer to determine what program is most appropriate for your proposed project. This is a good idea no matter what program you’re applying to, but for EAGERs, be sure to include information about why your concept is transformative (i.e., how is what you’re proposing different from current practice, what are its potential impacts) and why doesn’t it fit into an existing funding program.
Learn More about EAGERS
- Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide section on EAGERs
- Science.org synopsis of the EAGER program
- Sample DRK-12 EAGER abstract
- NSF description of transformative research
If you’re an early career researcher, you may be interested in these additional NSF funding opportunities.
This blog post was featured in the Spotlight on Exploratory Research.