I'm at the phase in my PhD where I'm explaining and re-explaining my project to everyone who comes by in order to figure out my rocket-pitches: what is it that I'm doing, at the heart of it all? A few recent versions that have come out...

Up Goer Five version, which uses only the 1000 most common words in the English language:

My work is about helping schools that make people who make things. Sometimes schools want to change the way they make people who make things, so those people have more fun and learn more things and will make things better. The problem is that people in schools have no time, so they usually do not talk with each other when they try to make these changes, and end up spending lots of time figuring things out when they could learn a lot just by talking with each other. I wonder if we can get people in schools to tell stories about how they are changing things, or have changed things in the past. Then schools can share these stories with each other, which takes less time than finding lots of time to talk. I will try to do this with two schools next year.

We can also put these stories out where any person in the world can see them, so that businesses and people who make things can learn about how schools for people like them are thinking. If people outside a school are able to listen to the stories of how that school is changing how it does things, they can help give ideas to that school while it is still trying to change things. This sounds easy but is actually hard because a lot of people are scared of sharing their stories because they worry that they might be doing things wrong and other people will get mad. So a lot of my work will be helping schools become less afraid of telling stories about how they are changing things. If this works, we hope that we will learn better ways to help people learn how to make things.

Ethnography version, which is for people who like qualitative research techniques but don't actually give a fig about STEM education:

When ethnographers do a multi-site study, their data often remains private, emerging only in limited, anonymous, already-analyzed snips after the fact. Sometimes this is necessary due to ethics and confidentiality. Sometimes it's not. If subjects can access and respond to fieldwork data from other sites as it's being generated, will that help them (and researchers) make sense of their experiences? What if we opened that access to the general public as well?

This study, run by a veteran open source leader, explores extending the open science movement to qualitative research by sharing faculty narratives across 2 undergraduate STEM programs in different stages of similar curriculum revisions over a school year. As each oral narrative is told, its realtime transcription will be open-licensed and used as a narrative prompt for the other site, leading to cross-institutional mentoring through storytelling. The ethnography becomes an enabler of both present and future participants, who can freely analyze, use, and share the open dataset in perpetuity.

The version for people who might not know much about qualitative research, but who think STEM education is important and needs to get better. After looking at this, I'm going to call it the "Obscure STEM Jargon" version; a few of my classmates read this, blinked, looked at me, and said "Mel, this sounds nothing like you." And they are right.

STEM education transformation has been an ongoing critical need. Successful participation in transformational change at an institution relies on an individual's ability to make sense of their role in the ongoing process. Innovation in undergraduate STEM education requires faculty with fluency in transformational change, yet sensemaking and other key aspects of change knowledge are "unfamiliar to most higher education institutions". Neither faculty nor adminstrators use journal articles to guide their change processes; scholarly accounts of transformation in undergraduate STEM education are generally retroactive, anecdotal, and sparse. Instead, change practices spread via 1:1 contact, where informal mentoring in the form of cognitive apprenticeships “makes thinking visible,” enabling both individual and collaborative reflective practice. The intervention described in this study seeks to lower barriers (e.g., time and cost) to faculty access of cross-institutional mentorships.

The purpose of this proposal is to explore an innovative and potentially high-impact approach to STEM education transformation. I will capture narratives of practice from faculty at one institution undergoing a curricular change process and use them to elicit reflections from faculty at a second institution that has successfully completed the same type of curricular change. When done repeatedly during over a school year, this intervention is expected to scaffold cross-institutional mentoring where faculty at both institutions help each other make sense of their change practices. Using transparent collaboration techniques employed for cognitive apprenticeships in successful open communities allows mentoring to occur in an asynchronous and distributed manner, requiring fewer resources than in-person interactions and enabling peripheral participation by others interested in curricular change who may use and contribute to an open collection of rich, in-situ stories of transformation in STEM education.

Honestly? I like the Up Goer Five version best. I've also started sketching out a comic book version, because that really does help my thinking -- I get lost among the words too often, try to sound too fancy because of preconceptions I have on what "academic writing" needs to sound like -- something I am training myself out of. So! Onwards!