by Kate White
Undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students in large universities face challenges in meeting people in their fields, securing opportunities to participate in research, and publishing. Limitations on travel to conferences and meetings along with distributed working and learning locations increase research silos and academic isolation. To tackle these challenges, Michigan State University faculty working in STEM education and research leveraged the infrastructure of Humanities Commons to create the Discipline Based Education Research Plus project (DBER+). DBER+ is a digital commons for STEM discipline-based education research. A $1,249,282 grant from the National Science Foundation funds the expansion of Humanities Commons to include DBER+ beginning in January 2023. 

“The DBER+ project is special because it embraces and advances so many elements of MSU’s Strategic Plan,” says Associate Provost Mark Largent. “The DBER+ Commons is a platform that generates new knowledge and mobilizes a diverse team of Principal Investigators. It is a resource for researchers within MSU and around the world. It’s a transdisciplinary solution to academic and human problems. Most importantly, DBER+ offers opportunities to students, graduate students and postdoctoral students from all backgrounds to participate in research and to publish.”  

The Human Element
DBER+ is more than a digital commons. NSF recognizes that building a robust digital commons requires human elements. Principal Investigator Kathleen Fitzpatrick, director of Digital Humanities and professor of English at Michigan State University, designed DBER+ Commons as a digitally enabled community building opportunity. Co-Principal Investigator Julie Libarkin, associate dean for STEM Education and Research and Innovation and professor and director of the Geocognition Research lab, saw the potential for her long-term vision to bring STEM discipline-based education researchers together. “Humanities Commons is the proof of concept,” says Fitzpatrick. “Building on our experience, we can advance DBER+ efficiently and effectively and leverage previous investments.” Fitzpatrick manages the technology and Libarkin leads community engagement.

Community engagement takes DBER+ to the next level. DBER+ includes a research coordination network (RCN) to support and promote the commons along with a collaboration board. The process of connecting researchers within the MSU community and around the world to prevent duplication of effort and to enhance partnerships on research that can be done across disciplines is part of the impetus for the project. Libarkin recently identified 175 researchers affiliated with MSU who work on STEM discipline-based education research. “DBER+ offers the potential to be a one-stop resource for researchers starting at MSU and expanding globally. It provides space for collaboration, the sharing of research and best practices, it brings experts and new scholars together, and it celebrates new findings,” says Libarkin. “It can help us connect investigators from all fields and access STEM discipline-based education research projects and ideas from all corners of our university and the world.”

DBER+ Advances Equity and Social Justice
Access to qualitative data functions as a barrier for new scholars, especially prior to securing significant grant funding or interest in their area of research. DBER+ Commons builds consensus around and capacity for open science, FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable) use of metadata, and CARE (Collective Benefit, Authority to control, Responsibility, Ethics) practices, principles, and guidelines for research and data in undergraduate, postbaccalaureate, graduate, and postdoctoral science education research activities. Expanding access to metadata for research creates opportunities for early career and minoritized scholars to secure data that they need to conduct studies and eventually publish their findings. CARE principles empower research participants from all backgrounds to share in shaping research to solve both academic and human problems. “When we do inclusive research, we solve more problems for more people and build our capacity for the future,” says Libarkin. Fitzpatrick agrees, “There is no scarcity of great people pursuing important research. Our digital commons brings them together and creates more of everything we need.”

DBER+ Commons’s goals include advancing science education research outputs, including quality control of metadata for research products, stewardship practices, interoperability, reproducibility, sustainability, equity, and democratization of access to research data. The project engages the broader science education research community in activities to develop shared norms, expectations, and potential.

“I am excited that DBER+ empowers proactive engagement with underrepresented and underserved communities in research and in learning,” says Largent. “It fits perfectly with MSU 2030 strategic vision.”