Here is an activity that I call “working the sentences.” It is a sentence-by-sentence activity that slowly builds a basic 300 to 500 word proposal for a project. This proposal can then be tweaked for specific student grants. I like doing this project in a classroom setting, with all of the undergrads in the class doing the writing sentence-by-sentence as I lay out below. But you could reasonably do this asynchronously over email, or on your own (if you are writing a student grant for the first time).
Step 1: start with the hypothesis. I spoke about developing a hypothesis in a different post – but it is easiest for students to build backward and forward from their hypothesis once they have one. It is also important, to me, to emphasize that you always want to put hypotheses in grant writing, never assume the reviewer knows where your research will take you. The hypothesis is sentence #1. Already off to a great start!
Step 2: How will you test the hypothesis. At this point, I like to ask the student what tools they will use to test their hypothesis. You, as the leader, can start with some basic questions if they have not designed their project yet:
Step 3: Expected results. This looks a lot like your hypothesis; however, it is specific about the exact results that you have from the test you proposed. If you hypothesize that a process impacts one region, then what would the ideal chemical or physical results from your test look that makes your hypothesis CORRECT. This is an important note, it is easiest to assume you will be proven correct, even if you are not. So, if you are proven correct, what should the chemical, physical test or field observations show you that would make you say: EUREKA! I knew it!
Example: (Hypothesis, sentence #1) During periods of CO2 increase, precipitation decreased in California. (Test, sentence #2) I will test this hypothesis by developing records of Mg/Ca in stalagmites archives from California that span variability of CO2 in the past. (Expectation, sentence #3) I expect that Mg/Ca will be higher, which suggests lower precipitation, during the last interglacial.
It is crucial that you have the students either submit each sentence as they are going. Alternatively, have a class discussion or peer-review time after each sentence is written. The idea is that the students may not see yet how this is all going to come together, but you want them to have these independent thoughts without worrying about that yet.
Step 4: Work backwards, intro and background. Now your students should abandon what they were working on. Have them flip to a new page or new section of white board, but they definitely need to stop thinking about their hypothesis and expected results. At this point, ask your students to brainstorm about why they think the world should care about their research. Does it impact hazard? Accessibility to science? climate change? Community health? And to prompt them, you can have them think about why they care about it.
This will turn into their introduction sentence – so when they have had time to freely brainstorm without constraints. Ask them to work with a partner or friend and come up with one sentence that summarizes one of the points they thought of during their brainstorm. Sentence #4, so close!
Now the background. Again, I encourage you to employ a free brainstorm model and have them think back on their reading – why would the scientific community care about their research? Does it fill a spatial gap? Temporal? Ecological? Does it use a new technique or a new type of archive?
Once they have done the brainstorming, have them think of one sentence that summarizes one point they made during their free period.
Now your students have the beginning of an introduction and background!
Step 5: Bring it all together! This is the fun part, have your students take all of their sentences and order them like so (if you’re following this guide).
I’m sure it will be hodge-podge and not make a lot of sense. But, your students will now see how it should flow together: how can they add transition words to make it flow together? Do they need to tweak their background and intro to build up more to the hypothesis? I encourage you to model this effort on a white board (or virtual equivalent). Remember to add some crucial words like “Here I propose to…” and catch active/passive voice mistakes.
Finally, the students need a summary sentence, which you can have them work on. But, this is their first proposal! Right there in front of them. In another class or at a different time, you can model how to tweak this basic proposal to the granting agency in your field.
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I am a Ph.D. Candidate who actively tries to create an equitable and enriching experience for undergraduate researchers, I post weekly about the things I teach and my experiences with undergraduates.