The National Institute for STEM Evaluation and Research (NISER) is aiding researchers from the university to the international level by providing evaluations for STEM project proposals.
NISER is a new program housed within the preexisting National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS), stationed at UT since its funding in 2008.
NIMBioS provides synthesis services, meaning the center brings in outside information to answer questions concerning projects by integrating information across departments. Upon expansion, NIMBioS grew to encompass an external evaluation center, creating NISER.
Program evaluation only recently become a requirement for obtaining research grants, but NISER provided this service to STEM researchers before it became mandatory. This foresight was credited to Louis Gross, distinguished professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UT and founding director of NIMBioS.
NISER program evaluations based on asking the right questions, ranging from what happens before the program, what processes happen during, what the results are after, to what are the long term effects. NISER utilizes data collection and analysis processes as part of their assessments.
This holistic approach works to answer questions along the way of program development to determine program strengths and weaknesses. Evaluations can be necessary in creating a framework from which a project can function successfully, and it is an ongoing and adaptive process with the goal of obtaining funding.
“Evaluation is a marriage of creativity and science,” Pam Bishop, NISER director, said.
Program evaluations and the project guidance supplied by NISER helps researchers in the competitive process of gaining grants.
Since its beginning in August of 2016, NISER has helped 9 projects obtain funding, and the center has an average of twenty proposals under review at any given time.
“Every funding agency is concerned with showing that what they support is effective and efficient. Having the expertise available here at UTK that can support evaluation of project effectiveness … can be a real benefit to faculty and staff competing for funding,” Gross said. “There is tremendous competition for funding support so anything UTK can do to make its proposals stand out is beneficial.”
The NISER staff has a STEM background, which Bishop says is an advantage in understanding and addressing research.
“There are a lot of program evaluators out there, but there are very, very few program evaluators who are specialist in STEM areas, and that’s our niche,” Bishop said.
Although NISER focuses on projects with their roots in STEM, the projects branch off to a range of subjects from there.
NISER operates mostly within the academic sector, but it has also contributed to project proposals in the private and nonprofit realms. There is diversity within the scopes of STEM projects, including proposals concerning STEM academic curriculum development.
Even in its short history, NISER has worked with over a dozen departments at UT, with universities across the nation and with proposals that have an international reach.
NISER hopes to advance from the individual project evaluations to the agency program evaluations in the future. As the need for STEM evaluators continues to increase, NISER plans to expand alongside it.