Leveraging Student Strengths in STEM: Tips for ITEST Proposal Writers

This piece was original authored by Brianna Roche in 2020 and has been updated to align with the most recent ITEST solicitation.

In the current NSF ITEST solicitation (22-585) the "Solicitation Specific Review Criteria" has been elevated to the Program Description section of the solicitation and is now very clearly listed as a requirement of all submitted proposals. The “Solicitation Specific Review Criteria” must now appear in the Project Description of your proposal under a separate heading, and must address each of the four questions. Of the four questions, STELAR frequently receives requests for clarification on question three, where the proposal writer is asked to address not only how they will address student challenges, but also how their proposal will leverage student strengths;

To what extent does the proposal describe specific research-informed instructional approaches to build on the strengths and challenges that students and their educators bring to classrooms and informal learning environments, particularly with students from underserved and underrepresented populations in STEM fields?     

NSF 22-585 II.B3.Q3

When describing underserved and underrepresented groups in STEM education research there has traditionally been a deficits-based approach, focusing on the challenges that new interventions will help the students overcome. While it is essential that your proposal addresses student challenges, it is equally important to also thoroughly describe the ways in which your work will incorporate strengths-based approaches. The latest research has shown that strengths-based approaches are crucial to student success, and are essential to promoting equity in STEM education.

It may be a new concept to think about your underrepresented group in terms of strengths. You may be used to primarily focusing on challenges and deficits in order to make a strong case for why an intervention such as yours is crucial to overcoming these imbalances. There are many ways to incorporate strengths-based approaches into your ITEST project, and it is important that you pick those that are best suited for the population you’ll be serving.

A Crash Course on Strengths-Based Strategies

For a crash-course on strengths-based strategies, reading Chapter 11 of the National Research Council's book, “A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas,” (2012) is a great place to start. The chapter is titled, “Equity and Diversity in Science and Engineering Education,” and includes a section on inclusive science instruction organized around four main recommendations: (1) Approaching science learning as a cultural accomplishment, (2) Relating youth discourses to scientific discourses, (3) Building on prior interest and identity, and (4) Leveraging student’s cultural funds of knowledge. This chapter incorporates contemporary research on strategies that promote equity in STEM education and is rich with citations for further reading.  

Incorporating Strengths-Based Strategies into Your Proposal

You may have already incorporated strengths-based approaches into your proposal idea and simply not conceptualized it using this terminology.  The “Solicitation Specific Review Criteria” section of your proposal should draw out the elements of your intervention design that has been informed by empirically-backed approaches to leverage student strengths. This section of your proposal should not be the only place where you acknowledge student strengths, it should be interwoven into your project idea from curriculum development through assessment. For ideas on how to develop strategies that are informed by strengths-based frameworks, the next section outlines several frameworks and key references to guide your exploration. 

Strengths-Based Frameworks & Concepts

The topics listed below provide a summary of some key strengths-based approaches as they relate to STEM education. This section covers culturally responsive education, place-based learning, community cultural wealth, STEM identity, and funds of knowledge. These topics are not exhaustive, and you are encouraged to find the strengths-based strategies that are best suited to the population you'll be serving. Under each heading you’ll find articles that describe the pedagogy or provide examples of interventions that utilized them. Each of the article links below are open-source (i.e. not behind a paywall).

Culturally Responsive Education: incorporating students’ cultural references into STEM teaching supports meaningful connections between lived experiences and the classroom

Place-based Learning: students will engage more deeply and meaningfully with STEM learning when it incorporates the local community (e.g. business and industry, the environment, museums and libraries, etc.) 

Community Cultural Wealth: cultural knowledge, skills, and abilities that students bring with them to the classroom that can engender persistence in the pursuit of STEM education

STEM Identity: students may not see themselves as future scientists but have existing interests and abilities that can be activated to provide the foundation to a STEM career

Funds of Knowledge: knowledge and skills developed through everyday experiences that can be woven into STEM academic practices


We hope that this information proves useful to you as you develop your ITEST proposal. If you have any additional questions about this topic, or anything else proposal related, feel free to contact STELAR at


Brianna Roche specializes in research, evaluation, and the development of learning communities to improve educational, economic, and health equity. She brings a strong background in research, strategic dissemination, and project management to her work advancing college and career readiness in STEM for underserved youth.