MTSU STEM Faculty Land $1.25M NSF Grant

Grant Gardner, Department of Biology professor and researcher, along with Middle Tennessee State University faculty Liz Barnes, Sarah Bleiler-Baxter, Jennifer Kaplan and Greg Rushton, recently landed a $1.25 million National Science Foundation grant to develop four post-doctoral candidates into STEM-education researchers.

MTSU National Science Foundation
Middle Tennessee State University STEM-education researchers and faculty, from left, Greg Rushton, chemistry professor and direction of MTSU’s Tennessee STEM education center; Sarah Bleiler-Baxter, mathematics professor; Grant Gardner, biology professor; Liz Barnes, assistant biology professor; and Jennifer Kaplan, mathematics professor, recently landed a $1.25 million National Science Foundation grant to develop four post-doctoral candidates into STEM-education researchers. (MTSU graphic illustration by Stephanie Wagner)

“We’re excited,” Gardner said. “Most active research universities have a strong population of post-doctoral scholars, and with this grant, we’re looking to both grow that population at MTSU … and study, systematically, how to train them to become successful STEM-education researchers.”

MTSU earned an R2 “doctoral university: high research activity” designation in spring 2022 and has been working to bolster its research efforts since, most recently with two faculty earning major, $1 million NSF early CAREER grants, and now with this post-doctoral fellowship.

The three-year grant will allow the team to recruit four post-doctoral STEM scholars — those who have earned their Ph.D. in the science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) fields — and cultivate them into what is known in academia as “disciplinary-based education researchers” or DBERs.

“Discipline-based education research is different from someone studying a specific content area like biology or chemistry,” Gardner said. “We are interested in the teaching and learning in that particular discipline and what’s unique about it. It investigates and gathers evidence about how­ to best educate people in that particular discipline.”

Gardner said the team’s goals with the grant are to enhance the research infrastructure and build STEM education mentoring partnerships both within and across MTSU; to have candidates support, conduct and disseminate high-quality DBER scholarship; to increase the inclusion and leadership of post-doctoral scholars with marginalized identities in the DBER faculty community; and to share their developmental model for use in the wider community.

Liz Barnes, who is also one of the two faculty to land an early CAREER grant, suggested the team use self-determination theory to guide the mentorship activities. Barnes explained the theory is based on three-points of human motivation — the need for a person to feel confident in their skills, to have control over their outcomes and to feel belonging in their environment.

“We designed the program components to meet these three needs to maximize the motivation and development of our post-doctoral researchers,” Barnes said. Some of these components include structured mentorship and professional networking, the development of a personalized professional development plan, abundant community-centered activities and more, she said.

Gardner said the research team came together because they represent a diversity of STEM backgrounds, and they are all disciplinary-based education researchers who made the jump from research within their disciplinary subject areas to researching education.

Barnes, assistant professor of biology, studies teaching and communicating socially controversial topics in biology. Sarah Bleiler-Baxter, professor of mathematics, researches the teaching and learning of proof in mathematical sciences. Grant researches professional learning of biology in graduate students in research and teaching.

Jennifer Kaplan, professor of mathematics, researches the teaching and learning of undergraduate statistics in mathematics and science education. Finally, Greg Rushton, director of MTSU’s Tennessee STEM Education Centerand professor of chemistry, researches classroom discourse and conceptual change in chemistry.

“How this transition occurs from a traditional STEM researcher to a DBER or education researcher after completing a doctorate in the discipline has never been fully studied,” Gardner said. “We’re hoping to study it systematically because we need more folks in this field, folks who can promote research-backed best practices in STEM education by conducting research and communicating with STEM faculty.”

In addition to the team’s efforts, Grant said the larger STEM education researcher community at MTSU, Greg Van Patten, dean of the College of Basic and Applied Sciences, Kevin Bicker, associate dean for research, and Rachel McGinnis, director of the Office for Research and Sponsored Programs, have been integral to making the project possible.

Grant said with the university’s transition to R2 status, it is a very exciting time to be a researcher at MTSU.

“I hope our university leaders continue to view knowledge-creation (research) as a co-equal pillar to knowledge-dissemination (teaching) in supporting the overall financial health of our university and its capacity for faculty to innovate,” he said. “I also hope that our leaders continue to act with courage in this uncertain environment by envisioning an optimistic future for research at MTSU.”

Learn more about the opportunities at the College of Basic and Applied Sciences at Learn more about the opportunities at the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at

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