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New National Institute Explores Evaluation Science

October 3, 2016

KNOXVILLE—A new national institute has been established at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, to provide independent evaluations of research and education programs in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics sectors.

At the National Institute for STEM Evaluation and Research (NISER), the main goals are not only to provide evaluation services to academia, government, and the non-profit sectors but also to generate new knowledge about the ways in which integrated STEM programs function successfully.

Begun as a pilot program at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) in 2015, the program has grown to collaborate with more than 30 departments across 14 higher education institutions in the United States to submit more than 50 grant proposals. Additionally, it has taken the lead in designing interdisciplinary evaluation instruments, developing evaluation workshops and hosting a national conference planned for 2017.

Many of the proposals were developed with departments at UT, including chemistry, microbiology, ecology & evolutionary biology, biochemistry & cellular and molecular biology, teacher education, materials science and engineering, among others.

So far, NISER is collaborating on nine proposals that have secured nearly $6.8 million in funding. Many of the projects focus on improving postsecondary STEM education, including curriculum improvement, student recruitment and retention practices, and faculty education. A particular focus has been expanding the inclusion of underrepresented students in STEM education.

NISER's evaluation expertise involves analyzing formative and summative results based a project's intended outcomes. The institute provides ongoing feedback to project stakeholders about program accomplishments and challenges so that they can make data-informed decisions toward program improvement. Using formative data collected over the lifecycle of a project, NISER can summatively evaluate whether a program succeeded in meeting its stated goals, including which parts of the program appear to be sustainable beyond the funding cycle.

NISER fills a much-needed niche in STEM-focused program evaluation, explained NISER Director Pamela Bishop.

"In a commitment to using taxpayer dollars effectively and efficiently, federal agencies have increasingly emphasized the need for rigorous evaluations to inform program decisions," Bishop said, citing as an example the 2016 U.S. federal budget investment of $1.5 billion in what it calls "tiered evidence" grants, which support the growth of successful programs.

NISER is also developing evaluation workshops designed to educate the STEM faculty community about program evaluation and to build a community of STEM evaluators for sharing best practices, lessons learned, and useful evaluation tools and methods.

A national evaluation conference hosted by NISER is planned for February 2017. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the conference will guide the evaluation component of a major NSF program.

NISER, which remains a subsidiary of NIMBioS, is staffed by two full-time employees, a postdoctoral fellow, and a graduate research assistant. NISER plans to hire additional employees as it grows.

More information about NISER can be found at


The National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis is an NSF-supported center that brings together researchers from around the world to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries to investigate solutions to basic and applied problems in the life sciences.

Catherine Crawley, NIMBioS, +1-865-974-9350,

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University of Tennessee
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From 2008 until early 2021, NIMBioS was supported by the National Science Foundation through NSF Award #DBI-1300426, with additional support from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
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