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An Interview With Dr. Celeste Carter

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ATE Central recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Celeste Carter, who is a Lead Program Director for NSF’s Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program.  We were interested to learn more about her involvement in the ATE program as well as how she thinks the program has changed and evolved over its tenure.  Dr. Carter also discusses the challenges of proposal writing, as well as three things she recommends every new grantee should do once they receive their funding.

ATE Central: You've been involved with NSF’s ATE program at a number of levels - initially as a grantee and now, of course, as a Lead Program Director. Can you describe your history with ATE for us?

Dr. Carter: I started as an ATE PI with an award made in fiscal year 1997. The project developed case studies with associated laboratory activities around the structure of a biopharmaceutical company. It was not only a very fun and challenging project, but it also introduced me to the ATE community. I was wrapping up that project when one of the Program Officers in NSF’s Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE) left for a job on the House Science Committee. Elaine Johnson, PI of the ATE-funded Bio-Link Center called me at my home institution and told me I needed to call Duncan McBride at NSF. Elaine explained that she thought I would be a great Program Officer and she had told Duncan (her Program Officer for Bio-Link) about me. I did call, and Duncan had me fly to Arlington to interview. They offered me a position as a rotator (a non-permanent Program Officer) in the DUE. I worked in DUE from 2001-2003, surviving 9/11, the Anthrax threat, and the snipers – I did have many people asking me why I stayed! I returned to my home institution in California only to be asked back again as a rotator. That rotation lasted only a year as Liz Teles informed me that she would be retiring and she thought I should apply for a permanent position at NSF and take over the ATE program. That is exactly what happened, and this October marks 8 years for me with the NSF as DUE Lead Program Director for the ATE program.


ATE Central: How do you think the program has changed over the last 24 years?

Dr. Carter: The mission of the ATE program hasn’t changed at all – it is still focused on educating a highly-skilled technical workforce for the advanced technology industries that keep the US globally competitive. But the program has changed over the years in response to industry needs, educator needs, and congressional queries and requests. I think one of the program’s strengths is that educators create ongoing partnerships with industry that can help define the new emerging technical areas. The partnerships are also critical for developing curricular resources responsive to industry needs, supporting students in internships and apprenticeships, and supporting a diverse set of pedagogical strategies to impact the students in the most effective learning modality. This last outcome has supported “just in time” modules, hybrid programs, programs with flexible time schedules, case-based and project-based learning, the development of student-run companies, and contract research and manufacturing organizations with student “employees”.

The most recent impact on ATE has been the slowing growth of the program budget in response to economic stresses, but the program is weathering this change and is still adding new opportunities for prospective PIs. In the most recent program solicitation two new project areas are presented: “Adaptation and Implementation”, as well as “Instrumentation with Curricular Revisions”.

ATE Central:  Is there anything you'd like to share with us about future directions for the program?

Dr. Carter: As I mentioned, industry plays a critical role in determining future directions for the program. As industry defines their workforce needs five to ten years out, the educator/industry partners can work towards changing technologies and the theoretical background around the new technologies. Government also plays a role in future directions. Currently, ATE PIs have the opportunity to partner with Manufacturing USA’s Manufacturing Innovation Institutes that were established under the Obama administration and continue under the new administration. Each institute partners education and industry in new emerging areas, and each institute has to develop a workforce plan. Many of the partner industries are looking for the skilled technical workforce, and the ATE community has more than two decades of experience in this area.

ATE Central: What do you think is the biggest challenge for someone writing an ATE proposal?

Dr. Carter: I think that it is the need to stay grounded with the requirements of producing a complete ATE proposal from the standpoint of NSF requirements, but also persuasively informing a panel of peer reviewers about the importance of the proposed work. This encompasses student learning first, but also faculty and institutional learning, and, of course, how the program graduates will support an industry need.

ATE Central: What are three things you recommend that every new grantee do once they get their award?

Dr. Carter: 1. Make sure they have a copy of the award letter and know their program officer and grants officer names and contact information. 2. Sit down with your team and go over the project timeline and goals and deliverables (things may have changed since you submitted the proposal – maybe you have more pilot data). Your team should also include your finance person and your administration. 3. Even though you may have answered some questions from your program officer, be sure you carefully read all of the reviews, panel summary, and the Program Officer (PO) comments. You may find a lot of helpful suggestions and ideas in that material as you begin the process of carrying out a successful project.

ATE Central: What is your advice for someone who wants to scale up in the ATE program - ie move from a small project to a larger or a large project to a center?

Dr. Carter: Carefully read the ATE solicitation and the Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide (PAPPG). Be aware that NSF sees its role as a catalyst. Coming in with a proposal that states “we’re off to a good start with some interesting results, and we need more money” is unlikely to be a proposal that moves forward to award. A better sentence might be “we completed all of our original goals and objectives with X students completing Y and being employed. We also learned that a new opportunity is available to us as a result of our… This proposal aims to respond to that new opportunity as we continue to grow the program through …” (this is just a hypothetical example). For centers, build a strong network through your previously funded projects such that you can present a center proposal that has a network at least partially established, plans for growing that network, and a strong understanding of and linkage to the rest of the ATE community.

ATE Central: What's your favorite part of working at the National Science Foundation?

Dr. Carter: I never get tired of reading peoples’ best ideas on how to impact students and the overall educational system of the US.

ATE Central: What's one thing you'd like to share that most people don't know about you?

Dr. Carter: That’s a tough question! I grew up in California, swimming competitively for the Santa Clara Swim Club, but spend more time on a yoga mat these days.


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