I begin my personal reflection about NSDL with an analogy that I don’t mean to strain too much but it seems to me that Chicago-style pizza and “NSDL-style” networks share some key characteristics. Both are faithful to core elements of two staples which play a part of modern life in many areas of the world. However, like Chicago’s adaptation of pizza, NSDL-Style networking gains recognition in its own right because of its new and unique contributions to a standard fare in 21st century society (i.e., bringing together different “ingredients” to assemble a new style of networks). While multi-institutional, multidisciplinary networks are recognized as necessary components as we move into cyber-enabled STEM research and learning, NSDL introduced me to a new “flavor” (ok, I promise — I’ll cease…).
My views about “NSDL-style networks” are based upon my experiences and observations from participation in the Evaluation Committee and as a Pathway. In both arenas I’ve had the opportunity to meet and work with people from a very wide range of expertise that I likely wouldn’t have met, had it not been for my involvement in the NSDL.
Different Backgrounds and Different Approaches
It’s not unusual these days to be part of organizations where people from many different backgrounds come together. What seems unique to me is that NSDL embraces its heterogeneity as well as actively strives to ensure that both individual NSDL projects and the overall program benefit from it. In support of EHR’s mission of excellence, the NSDL seeks to bring together all areas, all levels, and all settings in STEM. As projects are welcomed into the NSDL, people with different expertise (e.g., computer science, domain sciences, education, informal learning, information sciences, learning sciences, outreach, publishing), funded in different tracks (e.g., Pathways, Integrative Services, Research, and Tools) are supportively encouraged to learn from each other and work together for greater impact. NSDL leadership has initiated many approaches (e.g., regular and special topic conference calls, “birds of a feather” gathering, mentoring) to identify and foster collaboration among the many distributed projects. NSDL’s common social, governance, and technical framework, brings together its projects representing complementary parts of the STEM community. Through the NSDL framework, these diverse participants cooperate, exchange successful practices, and, where similar concerns exist, together forge fresh ideas and joint efforts for benefits to the individual projects’ community, the STEM community, and the NSDL program overall.
I think people and organizations try new approaches because of need, opportunity, and leadership and so, NSF, the NSDL Program Director, and the Core Integration team (CI) have provided support and guidance to tackle needs and maximize opportunities as the NSDL program and its projects have evolved. In its role as a recognized global leader, NSF consistently sponsors and jumpstarts innovative and promising approaches to advance STEM research & education. NSF decision makers continually seek out efforts to bring research and education together in meaningful ways. Not only does such an approach help to prepare the next generation of scientists but also, it seems to me, to cultivate that synergy for potentially profound impacts on accelerating the development of new knowledge. The NSDL Program Director purposefully molded the program to include projects associated with the broad spectrum of the STEM community to work individually as well as collectively in order to serve STEM and the public good. As NSDL launched, the Core Integration team of UCAR, Cornell, and Columbia shaped their individual areas of effort (outreach, technical, and collection development) to construct an overarching framework to which individual projects could join, contribute, and gain.
To my mind, some end results gained from “NSDL-style networks” are that one develops a greater understanding of the complex, heterogeneous networks needed to conduct STEM research and learning in a cyber-global society, as well as a keen sense that no one group sees the whole picture. When people with different expertise work together, we can start to bring together our complementary strengths and contribute more effectively to this collective undertaking for new, validated forms of STEM research and learning.
My strongest impression of NSDL style networks comes through at its Annual Meetings. Separate from the location and the number of attendees, the meetings themselves convey enthusiasm, energy, and lots of discussions about efforts. Going from session to session, you’re sure to see new as well as old faces and projects – faces and projects that you wouldn’t normally encounter when you attend your “professional” national conference. You can count on running into this mix of people and projects from all parts of the NSDL because the session themes generally and intentionally cut across audiences and disciplines. It takes quite a while to understand the different vocabularies, approaches, and issues reflected by the diverse participants in the discussions. You likely can’t fully appreciate the concerns represented by others outside your audience and discipline, but hearing their perspectives helps you appreciate the complexities facing STEM communities. While it is plain that the questions are plentiful and growing, you take heart in the diversity and commitment of those pursuing some answers.