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News Release 13-105

STEM Graduate Education Challenge Prompts Hundreds to Offer Ideas for Improvements

Challenge launched by National Science Foundation reveals desire to reshape graduate education according to today’s increasingly global and interdisciplinary practice of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)

Illustration showing the cell body of a neuron

Submissions represented a broad range of STEM disciplines.

June 13, 2013

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

Today the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced the winners of the Innovation in Graduate Education Challenge, launched in February 2013 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The challenge invited graduate students from across the nation to submit innovative ideas to prepare them for tomorrow's opportunities and challenges. Entrants were encouraged to submit ideas with the potential to improve graduate education and professional development. Ideas could be oriented to students, faculty, departments, institutions, professional societies, and/or federal agencies. Participation in the challenge was limited to currently-enrolled STEM graduate students. They were invited to submit by April 15, 2013, a 1,000- to 1,500-word response to this challenge.

The challenge was launched at a time when graduate education in STEM could be considered to be at a crossroads. Several reports have recently raised concerns about graduate education in STEM and the need to better prepare students for a range of career options in an increasingly global and competitive world. The challenge specifically asked for students to voice their ideas in the broader discussion of graduate education.

The challenge, developed and administered by NSF's Division of Graduate Education, offered cash prizes to first-, second- and third-place winners, selected by a panel of judges of current and recent STEM graduate students as well as experts in higher education in two rounds of judging. In addition, the public at large was invited to vote for their favorite submission from among 53 finalists to select the Community Choice winner, who also won a cash prize.

More than 500 teams submitted entries to the challenge, representing more than 700 STEM graduate students, 155 universities/institutions and 47 states, as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.

"We were very excited about the level of participation in this challenge," said NSF Acting Director Cora Marrett. "Not only did we hear from students from all fields of study and from institutions across the country; we also had a tremendous range of ideas offered for improving graduate education in STEM."

Ten percent of the entries advanced to the final round of judging and were eligible for Community Choice voting. Over 3,000 votes were cast for Community Choice.

The winners are listed below. Pictures and a more detailed description of their work are available at the Graduate Education Challenge website.

The contest illuminated a number of key areas cited by participants that can inform the preparation of STEM graduate students, including educators, institutions, and federal agencies:

  • Career development: Contest participants cited a need for better preparation of transferable skills for careers within and beyond academe.
  • Science communication skills: Participants knew the importance of science communication skills to convey the relevance and value of their research to funders, the media and the public.
  • Collaboration: Participants wanted to identify and connect with potential collaborators and to avoid being isolated.
  • Curriculum reform: Beyond their specific area of study, in an era of increasing interdisciplinary work, participants wanted access to education in fields such as business, statistics, and programming
  • Mentorship: Participants valued quality mentors and wanted better networks to identify and work with them.

Winning individuals and teams and their topics follow:

First Place--$3,000 prize

Opening the Doors of STEM Graduate Education: A Collaborative, Web-Based Approach to Unlocking Student Pathways
Kevin Disotell, NSF Graduate Research Fellow and Ph.D. candidate in aerospace engineering at The Ohio State University.

Second Place--$2,000 prize (two winners)

The Scientists with Stories Project
Clare Fieseler, founder of the Duke/UNC Scientists with Stories Project and PhD student in Ecology at UNC Chapel Hill.

Retaining Women in STEM Careers: Graduate Students as the Building Blocks of Change
"Parasite Ladies:" Dara Satterfield (team leader), Sara Heisel and Sarah Budischak, Ph.D. students in the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia

Third Place--$1,500 prize (four winners)

Communicating Science to the Public: A New Graduate Course and Practicum
Eric Hamilton and Melanie Bauer, graduate students in plant biology and psychology (respectively) at Washington University in St. Louis

Beyond the Academy: Enhancing STEM Education through External Graduate Assistantships
External Graduate Assistant Program: Sebastian Heilpern (team leader), Courtney Stepien, Benjamin Krinsky, Robert Arthur, and Colin Kyle, evolution and ecology graduate students at the University of Chicago

A National Online Platform for STEM Graduate Student Career Exploration and Professional Development
Liza Shoenfeld, Ph.D student in neuroscience at the University of Washington

Creating a Cooperative Environment for Graduate Studies and Career Preparation
David McDonald, PhD student in Genetics & Genomics at Duke University in the University.

Community Choice Winner--$1,000 prize

RELATE: Researchers Expanding Lay-Audience Teaching and Engagement
"Future Ira Flatows": Elyse Aurbach (Team Leader), Katherine Prater, graduate students in neuroscience at the University of Michigan


Media Contacts
Maria C. Zacharias, NSF, (703) 292-8454, email:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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