Willie Burgess

Managing Director, Discovery
Learning Research Center

Willie Burgess loves nothing more than helping Purdue's researchers embed world-class learning opportunities into their cutting-edge work.

Willie Burgess

As the managing director of Purdue's Discovery Learning Research Center (DLRC), Burgess and her colleagues work with dozens of researchers each year to do just that. As a result of the center's efforts, Purdue research includes significant and wide-spreading educational components, which can often help projects receive federal funding, she says.

What are your responsibilities as the center's managing director?

I'm responsible for managing the day-to-day duties of the center and the work of its 11 staff members. In addition to fundamental learning research, we work with faculty members on campus to develop and manage the educational components of their research. For example, we help faculty members think of ways their research might be used to transform classroom learning, and we help them include that information in their grant proposals to federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

We typically work on 45-47 proposals each year. We're involved in everything from developing the science of those proposals to coordinating plans to evaluate and manage their education components. We understand how to transform research into learning opportunities — whether those opportunities are for children, college students or older adults. We also understand how to evaluate and disseminate education components' results, which are helpful to researchers and federal agencies as they move forward.

Why is it important to include education components in grant proposals?

A broader impacts statement — which is code for a statement of a research project's education component — is often a criterion for federal grants, especially those funded through NSF. More and more, federal agencies want to know how the greater community will benefit from the research they fund. This is the case for research in all fields, from quantum mathematics to experimental physics. I like to say that you can write one of the best research proposals in the world, but if it doesn't include a compelling educational component and a competing proposal of the same quality does, then that education component will be the differentiator.

How does the center connect with Purdue's faculty members?

We maintain our visibility on campus several ways. For example, once a year, we go to all academic departments on campus and we tell faculty members about the benefits of partnering with the center. Sometimes, they engage us at that point and request our help. Other times, faculty members hear about our capabilities and seek us out as they embark on their grant-writing proposals.

Another big way we maintain visibility on campus is in our role as consultants to faculty who are applying for early career awards. These faculty members become aware of our services early on, and they often return to us when they need help including education components in their proposals.

What is an example of a project the center has been involved with?

A good example is a project called zipTrips, for which I was co-principal investigator along with J. Paul Robinson in Purdue's School of Veterinary Medicine and the College of Agriculture. The project was funded by an initial five-year grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and it essentially provides live, electronic field trips for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders across the world. On average, 20 to 60 schools watch the live shows when they air in September, November and February.

ZipTrips involve about 35 scientists from across campus who have scripted, practiced, recorded and performed these 45-minute field trips. Each of the live shows connects students with research happening at Purdue, and all scripts and lesson plans reflect national and state science standards. Show topics include animals, diseases and genes. We present the topics in a fun, interactive way that we hope gets kids interested in science.

This is a broad-based project that involves a lot of areas on campus, including ITaP Video and Multimedia Production Services, Agricultural Communication, the School of Veterinary Medicine and the DLRC, which completes the project's evaluation and assessment as necessary.

What is your professional background?

I began my career as a researcher studying clean coal technology, but I also had a strong interest in education because both of my parents were educators. My job at the DLRC has allowed me to merge my interests in research and education into work that is very fun and rewarding. One of the reasons I love my job is that a single day might involve working with projects that tackle topics as varied as breast cancer, bomb detection and everything in between. There's never a dull moment.