U of A researchers land three prestigious $2.5-million social sciences and humanities research grants

"It's the most we've ever had. It says something about the quality of the researchers we have here."

University of Alberta researchers led Canadian universities in a high profile federal grant program, landing $7.5 million for three major research projects.

On Wednesday, U of A researchers won three of 16 Partnership Grants through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Each project will receive $2.5 million over the next seven years for intensive research involving multiple partners and institutions.

"It's the most we've ever had," said Laura Beard, the U of A's associate vice president of research who oversees SSHRC grants. "It says something about the quality of the researchers we have here, the exciting kinds of research we're doing here, and what we're committing to doing."

Education researcher Carla Peck will lead an examination of how history is taught in K-12 classrooms across Canada, identifying and designing practices to bring lessons to life. Linguist Antti Arppe will lead a project to strengthen Plains Cree and Tsuut'ina, two of more than 60 Indigenous languages under threat in Canada. And Rebecca Gokiert, a psychologist with expertise in evaluating early childhood development, will lead a project to improve evidence-based testing for children across the country.

The grants are part of $285-million in SSHRC funding given to more than 6,900 researchers and graduate students for research projects. The U of A received 46 grants for a total of $11.75 million.

Real world impact

Peck's project, Thinking Historically for Canada's Future, will provide resources for a national strategy to help K-12 students learn and think about history. The grant comes as educational jurisdictions across the country look at ways to incorporate critical thinking and Indigenous perspectives in history and social studies classes.

"A solid, thorough research base is crucially needed to support and inform this work," Peck said.

She will work with 27 co-researchers, six collaborators, 17 universities and another 31 organizations. Funding from other groups brings the project budget to $8.6 million.

Arppe's project, 21st century tools for Indigenous languages, builds on previous SSHRC grants to build practical supports for the daily use of Cree and Tsuut'ina, as well as other Indigenous languages spoken in Alberta, Canada and North America. The project involves close partnerships with the Tsuut'ina Nation and the Maskwacis Education Schools Commission to ensure it is community-driven and culturally relevant.

Arppe said the revitalization of Indigenous languages will require software, including web dictionaries, spell-checkers and computer-aided language learning applications. He's seen the effect in his previous work developing tools for Nordic majority languages in his native Finland.

"Language equals identity," Arppe said. "The hard truth is that if you do not have at least the most basic language technological tools, that makes using any language, Indigenous or not, more cumbersome and inconvenient in the modern world."

Arppe will have 17 co-researchers, nine collaborators and 13 educational and institutional partners. Funding from the participating partners will bring the total project budget to nearly $6.2 million.

Gokiert's project, Evaluation Capacity Network, will help community-based organizations demonstrate the impact of their early childhood programs. Evaluations are key to organizations as they seek or attempt to renew funding for communities with a wide range of backgrounds, cultures and needs. Gokiert's team will look at tools and resources to assess programs in an effective, rigorous and transparent way.

"Children's early experiences and environments greatly influence their development as well as the economic and social fabric of our communities," Gokiert said. "One of the major outcomes of this initiative is establishing an evaluation hub, or EvalHub as we call it, which will be a 'one-stop shop' for evaluation resources and support."

Gokiert's seven-year project will involve 19 co-researchers, 10 collaborators and 22 government, community and educational partners. Funding from other groups will bring the project budget to nearly $4.7 million.

Amplifying impact

While each of the three projects represent different faculties, Beard said they're united by a commitment to education and diversity. Each has the potential to make a direct impact on the ground, or influence policy for decades to come.

As the U of A's main representative for SSHRC, Beard sees how much work goes into a competitive grant process. For every successful Partnership Grant, there are usually three or four projects that don't make the cut.

"It's very exciting when you get it," Beard said. "But it's what you're able to do with that money, it means you can support the research of your team and do the work that you really want to do."

Large research grants may get the most attention, but Beard said they're often the culmination of years of painstaking work, often with smaller projects along the way. The payoff comes with steady funding for research teams, which helps create partnerships and build the U of A's capacity for research.

An added bonus is that it inspires other researchers to think about their own projects that could have a major impact, Beard said.

"We need to be looking to the future and what we need to do," she said. "If we're really responding in exciting, ethical and interesting ways, we're putting forward amazing proposals."