NSF’s Karen Marrongelle Discusses Priorities, Challenges, and Opportunities for Education Researchers

December 2018

Karen Marrongelle became the Assistant Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) for Education and Human Resources (EHR) in October 2018. Prior to joining NSF, Marrongelle was dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Portland State University and a professor of mathematics and statistics. From 2007 to 2009, Marrongelle served on a rotation as a program officer at NSF and led numerous grants, collaborating with researchers nationally and internationally to improve undergraduate mathematics education and K–12 mathematics professional development.

Marrongelle has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and philosophy from Albright College, a master’s degree in mathematics from Lehigh University, and a doctorate in mathematics education from the University of New Hampshire. She can be reached at kmarrong@nsf.gov.

Q. What motivated you to return to government service and to lead the EHR directorate?

A. My time as a program officer at NSF was very influential on my career. The chance to again work at the forefront of STEM education research during these times of rapid change and opportunity in education was very appealing. This is an exciting time to be at NSF, with our work grounded in the 10 Big Ideas for Future Investment. There are new opportunities for education research within all 10 of the Big Ideas, and the Big Ideas have the potential to stretch our field in ways that we may not have previously considered.

Further, I am excited about the agency’s emphasis on public-private partnerships and look forward to deepening our work through these partnerships. I would be remiss not to add that I highly recommend serving in a rotation as a program officer in EHR.

Q. What are two or three of your top priorities for EHR?

A. First and foremost, EHR advances education research and serves the public by providing educational experiences, scholarships, internships, and STEM workforce and development opportunities. It is very important for us to stay on the forefront of asking and answering fundamental research questions about how STEM learning and teaching evolve, particularly with so much data available to us today.

We need to understand and deepen our knowledge about how people learn STEM content in learning environments of the future, especially in nonformal and nontraditional settings and taking advantage of technological innovations. We must also continue to pursue important questions about achievement gaps in STEM education and identify promising practices to broaden participation in STEM—at all ages and levels.

I would also like to ensure that we are effectively communicating the results of our investments to our many stakeholders. EHR funding is responsible for so many discoveries and findings in STEM education research, and we must continue to find ways to clearly communicate these results.

Q. What do you anticipate being the most exciting part of your work? What do you see as your biggest challenge?

A. The most exciting part of the work is collaborating with a range of experts, across the Foundation and in the field. I am lucky to have access to the best and brightest thinkers who care deeply about STEM education, seek answers to important questions, and bring to bear novel ways of thinking to fundamental STEM education challenges.

The biggest challenges I see are communicating the discoveries made with our investments, as I indicated above, and seeking ways to find connections between the many programs across EHR.

Q. How do you see your previous experience as a program officer informing your leadership at EHR?

A. Having the experience as a program officer is critical to many aspects of my leadership. I understand the demands on program officers, the opportunities and challenges in the work that program officers undertake, and the processes with which they interact daily. Much as we often expect university leaders to have experience as a faculty member, the experience as a program officer helps ground my leadership with firsthand knowledge of the work that takes place on the front lines.

Q. The EHR Core Research (ECR) program is one of the key programs supporting fundamental education research at NSF. What can you say about the impact of this program on the field and on STEM education? Do you have any specific plans for the future for ECR?

A. Since the program launched in 2013, ECR has funded more than 500 research projects. ECR continues the tradition of EHR’s funding of foundational research for STEM education. The program supports multidisciplinary teams including education researchers addressing the challenge of what are the basic knowledge, theory development, and methodologies that will advance research and development for STEM learning and learning environments, for broadening participation in STEM, and for the STEM workforce.

Q. NSF has been looking at ways to measure the value of public-private partnerships. What are the challenges to capturing partnerships in education and how can researchers communicate the impact their work is having in schools?

A. EHR has been engaged in partnerships for decades. It is consistent with the agency’s priority goal of expanding public-private partnerships and is consistent with the administration’s STEM education strategic plan, Charting a Course for Success: America’s Strategy for STEM Education. Developing and enriching strategic partnerships is one of the pathways to achieving the goals set in the plan.

Q. What initiatives or programs at EHR should education researchers know about?

A. I would like to see more students in STEM education research apply for the NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowships, a program that recognizes and supports students early in their graduate training. I also encourage eligible faculty to submit proposals to the Faculty Early Career Development Program. Finally, I encourage education researchers to look out for Dear Colleague letters and solicitations related to the 10 Big Ideas for Future Investment. I hope that the programs related to the Big Ideas will stimulate new ways of thinking about how we conduct educational research (facilities, methodologies, and questions).

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