Active Learning Through Grant Writing

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 16–17, 2018

Stetson University
Miami, Florida

Farmingdale State College is one of the 64 campuses that constitute the State University of New York, a system of public colleges that spans the state. Located on Long Island, the College is less than an hour away from New York City by train. Our proximity to the metropolis explains our original mission: we were founded in 1912 as a two-year college of applied agriculture, in large part to help feed the citizens of New York City.

Over the years, Long Island transformed from a pastoral scene of potato and pickle farms to a booming high-tech corridor. Responding to this change, in the mid-1980s, Farmingdale State College became a four-year college of technology. Gone were the chickens, pigs, and cows; the orchards; the fresh eggs and hand-churned ice cream—all were replaced by a Renewable Energy and Sustainability Center, Solar Energy Center, Applied Mathematics Center, Social Science Research Institute, and Infrastructure, Transportation and Security Center, among other programs focused on our new mission. Recently, we have added masters programs as well.

Today, Farmingdale State College boasts more than 45 academic programs under the auspices of four schools: the School of Engineering Technology, the School of Business, the School of Health Sciences, and the School of Arts and Sciences. We have approximately 210 full-time faculty and more than 400 adjuncts. Our current enrollment tops 9,500 students, and reliable estimates predict 10,000 students by 2019. The 2019 edition of US News and World Report ranked us 19th among the Best Colleges in the category Regional Colleges North. Our student body is 30% minority: 17% Hispanic and 10% African American. Primarily a commuter school, we have 600 resident students.

Farmingdale State College has superb programs, some elegant traditional buildings, and some beautiful new ones, all situated on 380 lush acres. We have bright, hard-working students, student-centered faculty, and supportive administrators. What we do not have is deep pockets. At 5.8 million, our endowment is not sufficient to fund all our needs and wants, no matter how creatively we all try to stretch the money.

As a result, the bulk of our money comes from tuition. Currently, our in-state tuition and fees are $8,306 (2018-19); out-of-state tuition and fees are $18,086. As you can see from these numbers, we are not a wealthy college. Many of our students are low-income and first in their families to attend college. The economic underpinnings of our college became apparent to me recently, after I served a stint as chair of the English department. Despite my long tenure at the College—more than thirty years—and my resulting status as a senior professor, I had never paid much attention to budgetary matters. While I was chair, I was forced to confront this reality and try to find a creative solution that would benefit both the students and the college.

My idea? I decided to revise my Advanced Professional/Technical Writing class, English 310 (a requirement in many of our programs), as an applied learning class. The major class project would be grant writing; the possibility of bringing in money could only help our bottom line.

After consulting with knowledgeable and gracious colleagues, last semester I proposed a new active learning approach by having every student in my Advanced Professional/Technical Writing Class apply for a grant based on their major. Getting the approval for this project required an impressive amount of paper work and many meetings, but the proposal did go through and the class is scheduled for the spring 2019 semester. Enrollment is already at capacity.

The course outcomes include helping my students:

  • become more active learners;
  • learn real-world skills that provide valuable career competencies;
  • network with mentors in their subject areas;
  • practice how to write clearly, concisely, and correctly;
  • understand the value of winning grant money in all fields.

Here is the course catalog description of English 310:

A detailed study of the fundamentals of writing technical reports and other technical communications. Topics emphasized include the elements of a technical report, the interpretation of statistics and data, and the composition of letters, memos, and informal reports containing technical information. Assignments and student exercises are drawn from the student’s technical area.

To achieve the intended course outcomes, I created a five-step project.

Step 1

The first step involved students brainstorming a project that would benefit the college or community. During this phase, students identify audience and purpose, which is, of course, the key to all successful writing. They then write a brief paper specifying their goals and objectives, so we can check that their vision aligns with the reality of the grant process. I anticipate students applying for modest grants, no more than $5,000 each, rather than aiming for million dollar moon shots. As part of this phase, students will consider evaluation, discussing how they will assess the results. Finally, in addition to the concept paper, students will research what they will need to fund the project they anticipate and create a one-page budget.

Step 2

For the second step, students will research grant opportunities, using College resources and their smartphones, laptops, or tablets. I had planned to work with the College’s director of research, Dawn Grzan, who helped me with the initial planning. However, she has moved on, and two other colleagues graciously agreed to help. The first is Tony DeSimone, coordinator of the office of sponsored programs and research administration institutional review board (IRB). Tony took Dawn Grzan’s place.

The second expert is Dr. Beverly Kahn, a professor of political science and special project coordinator. Bev joined Farmingdale in 2008 as provost and vice president for academic affairs. In her current position at Farmingdale, Beverly serves as special project coordinator and grant writer. She has secured more than $12 million in major grants for the College, including a Title IIIA grant and a SSS Trio grant (plus renewal) from the U.S. Department of Education, a Smart Grid grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, and the U.S. Department of Education’s First in the World Grant that has created our RAM Program. Although Bev retired from the classroom last year, she very generously agreed to help. I am deeply indebted to both Tony and Bev for their assistance.

Step 3

For step 3, once students have located a specific grant and its requirements, they make sure that it matches their audience and purpose. During this step, students will also create a timeline to track all deadlines, submissions, and so on. This step is especially important because the project will likely continue after the class has ended, as students will find out whether their projects were funded and if so, what other steps they may have to take, including submitting summative reports.

Step 4

For step 4, students will draft their applications, edit, and proofread. Before I read the grant applications, students edit and proofread in small groups. This shifts the focus from teacher-based delivery of content to collaborative learning activities performed by students—in other words, active learning.

Step 5

For step 5, students submit the completed application to the grant agency. Students keep copies, as do I. I anticipate storing these on a dedicated web page.

Overall, students’ grades are based on the completion of the assignment as well as their reflections on the activity, which will be used for assessment purposes. I anticipate students gaining valuable real-world writing experience, comprehending the importance of purpose and audience to successful documents, learning the various forms that research can take (through consulting experts as well as web sources), and understanding the importance of following through on projects. Winning grant money would be the icing on the cake!

Go to the table of contents for:
Spring 2019: Transforming Teaching Through Active Learning