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An old and unfunded proposal to NSF to create iMechanica

Zhigang Suo's picture

In response to a NSF call for proposal on Cyberinfrastructure Training, Education, Advancement, and Mentoring for Our 21st Century Workforce (CI-TEAM), in June 2006, several of us submitted a proposal entitled "iMechanica:  Leveraging Cyberinfrastructure to Evolve All Knowledge of Applied Mechanics"

The proposal is not funded, but the exercise played a significant role in the creation of iMechanica.  I'm also pleased with the comments from the reviewers.  Here I take the liberty to post the project summary and the reviews from the NSF.  I also attach the full proposal.

As explained elsewhere, iMechanica is running at a near-zero cost, and faces no pressure to seek external funding.  We will revisit this question of funding when needs arise.

PROJECT SUMMARY

For centuries, knowledge has evolved by words of mouth, journals and books. This approach is effective when a discipline is young, but is not scalable when the discipline grows up. When the number of journals and books in a discipline becomes large, we divide the discipline into subdisciplines, or declare that the discipline is mature, only to be surprised by yet another breakthrough drawing upon several subdisciplines. This approach has made it hard for individuals to master and contribute to the discipline, a barrier that has discouraged many young people to enter traditional disciplines of science and engineering.

We envision a new approach to evolving knowledge in a traditional discipline, leveraging existing and emerging cyberinfrastructure. Specifically, we will develop a prototype of an online platform, called iMechanica.Org (or iMech for short), with the mission to evolve all knowledge within Applied Mechanics. For any such a discipline with deep academic roots and broad industrial user base, the mission to evolve all its knowledge can only be accomplished if many people collaborate. 

While the mission of iMech is ambitious, this Demonstration Project will focus on the following deliverables, integrating functions that are crucial to rallying many people to evolve knowledge of the discipline, in all its intricacy, depth and breadth. First, we will develop community-building tools including a weblog of news and views maintained for and by the international community of Applied Mechanics, a social network aiming to link all past and living mechanicians, and an interactive website for hands-on projects involving mechanical principles designed for and by K-12 teachers and students. Second, we will integrate knowledge-processing tools including an archive for users to upload data and images, a wiki for collaborative synthesis of knowledge, and a new kind of research journal that enhances conventional functions of journals such as archiving, filtering and commenting, and enables new functions such as wikiediting and social bookmarking. To demonstrate the use of the wiki in synthesizing knowledge at an advanced level, we will involve students and practitioners in industry to write a wikibook on Thin Film Fracture Mechanics, and will use the writing process as a part of a graduate course taught at Harvard, with webcast to the University of Nebraska where students will also take the course for credit.

Intellectual merit. The intellectual merit of this proposal is twofold. First, we will demonstrate a platform that will make published knowledge constantly evolve and new ideas rapidly spread.  In steady state, the discipline and its online platform will co-evolve. Second, we will demonstrate a process to evolve knowledge by massive collaboration. The need to leverage the new cyberinfrastructure to evolve knowledge exists in all traditional disciplines.  The platform developed for Applied Mechanics and experience gained should be replicable to other disciplines.  More broadly, in a time when nearly everyone subscribes to interdisciplinary research and education, it has become increasingly important to evolve each individual discipline online, making specialized knowledge generally accessible and useful. As individual disciplines evolve their own knowledge, platforms of different disciplines will be hyperlinked, growing into an organic structure.

Broad impact. This approach will (1) substantially expand the character of education and research by providing a live environment embodying all knowledge in a discipline – from phenomena and explanations of interest to the general public, to textbooks and demonstrations for students, to data and tools used by practitioners in industries, and to theories and experiments pursued by academics; (2) prepare a new generation of experts capable of using cyberinfrastructure throughout their lives to learn and teach; and (3) enable K-12 teachers and students to actively participate in science and engineering.

 

REVIEWS FROM NSF

Panel Summary:
Panel Summary
Very well written proposal. This project is high value, but also high risk. This is an innovative and even visionary project, but the proposal is weak on management and evaluation, and there is no minority outreach plan. This is a serious weakness. This project could have a lot of impact if successful. Could provide us with some genuinely useful lessons. There is much value in funding this proposal. They are ambitious, one reviewer felt that they have the resources to do it, another felt it was over-ambitious.

Vision and goals. This project has 4 co-APIs. This is a new approach to evolving knowledge in the field of Applied Mechanics using existing and emerging cyber infrastructure. The investigators will develop a prototype system called iMe ch which will develop community building tool which will facilitate the development of a social network of mechanicians.

 
Intellectual Merit. Many disciplines face crisis, knowledge dissemination does not scale at the same rate at which knowledge is growing. Use leisure applications for scholarly activities. Risk: things that work well in more recreational domains will not translate to more scholarly applications. However, this is really thinking outside the box. It uses social networks and the knowledge organization. It is in a simple form but it can be an example for a lot of other fields in engineering to follow. Comment: the specific tools uses are already in existence and are not particularly innovative. Many other communities are using this (for example women's communities) but the Applied Mechanics community (and much of engineering) does not.

 
Implementation Plan. The researchers will develop massive collaborative synthesis tools in the field of Applied Mechanics as a testbed. There are two major foci to the implementation, community building components and knowledge processing components. The community building components include Applied mechanics news, the web of mechanicians, Applied Mechanics Outreach. The knowledge processing components include: Applied mechanics archive, Wikimechanica, Prototype built around course on thin-film mechanics, Applied Mechanics journal: wiki editing, and social computing. One panelist raised the question, "Why are they not using existing tools?"


CI-Leverage. This project embraces CI's view of large scale collaboration.
Management/Collaboration plan. The management plan is not detailed. There has already been work on the newsletter; the project builds on initial explorations.


Qualifications. Some very significant investigators. They are the right people to be doing this. The PI's track record of attracting people is good.


Evaluation Plan. Evaluation plan is non-existent. The infrastructure development by students is good, however it will not directly contribute to their research. Hence some computer staff in combination with a student may be more appropriate. The researchers need to identify methods to asses what the social network will accept and not accept.

 
Broader impacts. If they can do what they suggest, it will pull in much of the (applied mechanics) community. It will increase community engagement in a scientific community. If other communities see that it works they may want to use it too. It could spread to all of engineering. It is essential to be bringing some order to the explosion of knowledge that exists in all fields.


Dissemination plan. RET, Recruiting K12 students, course on "Wikibook." I was not convinced about broad dissemination. No plan for minority outreach. One reviewer thought they made a strong case for new ways of dissemination in mechanics, but I thought the premise that "If we create the tools it will be adopted" is not well supported.


Sustainability. Not clear that the proposers have the mechanisms in place to "harvest" what is learned in the project to make it useful to other people. May not last beyond duration of project.
Outreach: There is a plan for outreach to K12, but no minority outreach.


Closing comments: Maximizing the opportunity which this presents has to do with maximizing people's perceptions about the incentives and disincentives. The issues are cultural as much as anything else. The panel would have been more comfortable if they had an evaluation program in place for interviews, or other qualitative approaches to identifying how the community views this tool. Budget: no funds for PI.


Panel Recommendation: Recommend

Review #1

Proposal Number:

0636260

Performing Organization:

Harvard University

NSF Program:

CI-TEAM

Principal Investigator:

Suo, Zhigang

Proposal Title:

Collaborative Research: iMechanica: Leveraging cyberinfrastructure to evolve all knowledge of Applied Mechanics

Rating:

Excellent

REVIEW:

What is the intellectual merit of the proposed activity?
The proposal is very innovative using sound knowledge of existing social networking phenomena. It will develop a platform to evolve all knowledge in a discipline like applied mechanics, where the knowledge is becoming deeper. Hence community building tools, wiki for mechanics, and corresponding demonstration is timely and appropriate.


Knowledge evolution using CI is key. However more important are proposal methodologies that can truly position us for CI demonstration successes. This proposal is a balance of deep insight into knowledge evolution in a discipline which to some extent will stagnate. Experts will have to learn a lot quickly and time becomes a crucial element in knowledge learning and use, when resources are plenty.


What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity?
This proposal is aimed carefully at developing crucial elements for mechanics education platform for knowledge evolution in a wiki book and wiki pedia form. This CI will also enable participation by high school teachers and preparation of new experts that can learn on the go.

 
Summary Statement
This proposal is worth funding and is very competitive in all respects.
The main concern is that it is overambitious. The infrastructure development by students is good, however it will not directly contribute to their research. Hence some computer staff in combination with a student may be more appropriate. If students are going to do the implementation, it is very unlikely they will be able to accomplish all that is described in this proposal. One more concern is that the evaluation plan is inadequate for this proposal in addition to methods to asses what the social network will accept and not accept. Although the proposal has these drawbacks, i am evaluating as excellent. I hope the PI's will pay attention to these aspects and use the feedback assesment in the first year back into their defnition of this project.
It will be good to prioritize. Even if the team is able to accomplish 50% of what is proposed, this is well worth funding.

Review #2

Proposal Number:

0636260

Performing Organization:

Harvard University

NSF Program:

CI-TEAM

Principal Investigator:

Suo, Zhigang

Proposal Title:

Collaborative Research: iMechanica: Leveraging cyberinfrastructure to evolve all knowledge of Applied Mechanics

Rating:

Very Good

REVIEW:

What is the intellectual merit of the proposed activity?
The underlying focus is the 'crisis' faced by many disciplines because current methods for communicating and managing the stock of knowledge don't scale with knowledge growth. The solution is to exploit the many new tools and methods already in common use on the Internet (the risk is these won't translate to educational uses). This is a very innovative and exciting proposal that embraces the CI vision of large scale collaboration, community and public engagement to make scholarly research accessible, and seeks to explore how to make this work. The PI has already begun to explore this through AMN and the project seeks to build upon and extend what has been achieved so far. The problem is the lack of details about how project aims will be accomplished, how it will be managed and how it will be evaluated. My concern is that much what is learnt (and I'm sure it will be very productive in this respect) will not survive beyond the end of the project.
What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity?


The broader impact of this proposal is founded on training in use of community tools, enabling wide participation, 'turning the traditional model of public outreach upside down'. Potentially very high, even 'revolutionary'.


Summary Statement
A very innovative, visionary project, weak on project management, evaluation. Combined, these factors lead me to conclude that it is a high value but also risk project.

Review #3

Proposal Number:

0636260

Performing Organization:

Harvard University

NSF Program:

CI-TEAM

Principal Investigator:

Suo, Zhigang

Proposal Title:

Collaborative Research: iMechanica: Leveraging cyberinfrastructure to evolve all knowledge of Applied Mechanics

Rating:

Good

REVIEW:

What is the intellectual merit of the proposed activity?
This proposal has been very well written and structured, it presents the background, goals, rationale, and implementation of the project clearly and efficiently. The scope of the project is to create CI for the applied mechanics field incorporating several types of technologies. This projects provides a solid example of introducing basic CI into a traditional engineering community.
The success of online communities depends on many factors and it is almost impossible to predict the future success of a community. While this is the case for the proposed community as well, the PI ahs already demonstrated success with four blogs that he has started for the community and that have been maintained by a group of volunteers. An additional source of support could have been some form of commitment from AMD to disseminate the community tools among its members.
The proposal integrates outreach to K-12 teachers and students and research activities as well, which will create a testbed for using CI technologies for applied mechanics. The lessons from these efforts can be useful for other engineering and technology research communities.
The project is not building on previous projects and is not very innovative, but proposes to implement established technologies.

 
What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity?
The weakest part of the proposal is the evaluation of the success of the project. There is practically no evaluation plan defined, which not only weakens the potential outcomes from the project but also questions the transferability of the results. Being a demonstration project, lessons learned should be disseminated to other communities, however, if there is no detailed evaluation included, there will be no reliable way of assuring the success of various techniques.
The proposal does not intend to attract more members of underrepresented groups to the filed of applied mechanics, except for the expected average enrollment of the members of these groups in education, research, and practice.


Summary Statement
A very well written proposal with a solid, although not very innovative, plan for introducing community CI into applied mechanics. The broader impacts are questionable and the evaluation plan is not satisfactory.

Review #4

Proposal Number:

0636260

Performing Organization:

Harvard University

NSF Program:

CI-TEAM

Principal Investigator:

Suo, Zhigang

Proposal Title:

Collaborative Research: iMechanica: Leveraging cyberinfrastructure to evolve all knowledge of Applied Mechanics

Rating:

Good

REVIEW:

What is the intellectual merit of the proposed activity?
This proposal makes a strong case for creating new ways to disseminate information in Applied Mechanics. The implementation plan is well outlined with the PI having already achieved a good record of success in initial work in this arena.


What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity?
The case for broad dissemination relies on the premise that if this set of tools is developed, it will be widely adopted. While there is history to support this being likely, this is not a well defined plan that includes minority outreach efforts. This portion of the proposal could be enhanced.


Summary Statement
Overall, a quality proposal worthy of support.
-------- Original Message --------

Subject:
NSF Proposal Notification - Proposal No.-0636260

Date:
Mon, 4 Dec 2006 15:12:50 -0500 (EST)

From:
jmunoz@nsf.gov

Reply-To:
mheller@nsf.gov

To:
suo@deas.harvard.edu

CC:
julie_humphreys@harvard.edu

Proposal Number: 0636260
Title:  Collaborative Research: iMechanica: Leveraging cyberinfrastructure to evolve all knowledge of Applied Mechanics

Dear Dr. Suo:
I regret to inform you that the National Science Foundation is unable to support your proposal referenced above.


Your proposal was reviewed in accordance with the general merit review criteria established by the National Science Board that address the intellectual merit of the proposed activity and its broader impacts.  These criteria permit an evaluation of the proposal's technical merit, creativity, educational impact and its potential benefits to society.  If your proposal was submitted in response to a specific solicitation, additional review criteria may have been used to review your proposal as described in the solicitation.


The full text of the two merit review criteria and supporting explanations are available in Chapter III of the NSF Grant Proposal Guide <http://www.nsf.gov/publications/pub_summ.jsp?ods_key=gpg>.
You may access the reviews of your proposal, a description of the context in which your proposal was reviewed, and any further analysis or statements at the URL referenced below.  This information may be helpful to you in understanding the Foundation’s action and also in preparing any future submissions.  If you would like further information concerning the review of your proposal, please contact the cognizant program officer whose name, email address, and telephone number are provided below. Information about NSF's reconsideration process is described in section 900 of the NSF Grant Policy Manual <http://www.nsf.gov/publications/pub_summ.jsp?ods_key=gpm>1.
Although we are unable to support this proposal, we would be pleased to consider any future proposal you may wish to submit.
Sincerely,

José L. Muñoz

Deputy Director
Office of CyberInfrastructure
Cognizant Program Officer:  Miriam Hellermheller@nsf.gov, (703)292-7025

You will need your FastLane password to access this website.  If you do not have or cannot remember your password, please go to https://www.fastlane.nsf.gov/jsp/homepage/proposals.jsp for instructions on resetting or obtaining passwords.
1 Please note that certain proposals submitted to NSF are not eligible for reconsideration.  Consult the NSF Grant Policy Manual section referenced above for additional information.

Comments

Pradeep Sharma's picture

Zhigang, this is a very nicely written proposal. Looks like that you have addressed most of the reviewer criticisms! It may be worthwhile for you to resubmit now that you have "preliminary results"!

Zhigang Suo's picture

Lack of funding in this case may as well be a blessing in disguise. When the idea of using the Internet to evolve all knowledge of mechanics first came to me, as an academic, my natural action was to talk about it and write a proposal. During that period, I had many long conversations with Zak Stone, a student in physics and computer science. He once asked me, "but Zhigang, why do you need funding for doing this?" Indeed, for what we want to do, at least initially, we don't need more research about online communities. Rather, we need to motivate many people to participate. The technology already exists.

The lack of funding has drastically reduced the scope of the proposed work, and focused our attention to one aspect: bringing the community together through Drupal. This has given us time to reflect on what we have learned through online interactions. The levels of commitment of the participants are not too high to disrupt our other activities.

Now we can regard iMechanica as a testbed for further experiments. One possible way to move forward is to decentralize the development. Individual users may include their iMechanica activities as parts of their regular NSF proposals. Possible ideas include helping K-12 students produce videos, posting innovative material for teaching, promoting a new area of research through forum discussion...

For more ambitions development of iMechanica as an online platform for mechanics, we can use iMechanica as a forum to discuss specific ideas, and can even write a proposal as a community.

ericmock's picture

Zhigang, thank you very much for posting this as I am planning to submit an engineering virtual organizations (EVO) proposal this time around.  The reviewer's comments will be extremely useful as I polish my proposal.  My ideas have been over ten years in development and the activity on iMechanica made me realize that the mechanics community might be ready for what I call Open Source Publishing.  I will be posting a blog entry shortly to solicit feedback and direct people to the web site that contains the proposal.  Yes, the first Open Source document to be made available to the public will be the proposal itself.  As the results will benefit the community, my hope is that the community can help shape the vision and even be involved in refining the proposal. 

Eric Mockensturm (emm10@psu.edu)

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