A fleet of mobile innovation labs intended to bring STEAM learning to young children in communities without many opportunities and an effort to recruit young men of color into the early-childhood field are among the proposals submitted for a challenge grant from the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE).
Launched in January, the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative — funded by a $35.5 million donation from the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation — called for innovative projects at three phases: the idea track, the pilot track and the scaling track. Organizations and individuals submitted over 200 ideas, which were narrowed down to 16 finalists.
On June 4, the finalists will pitch their ideas before a live audience and a judging panel made up of early education experts. The judges will select three proposals to fund in each track.
“We are at a pivotal moment in early education,” Nonie K. Lesaux, academic dean, and Stephanie M. Jones, education professor, both with HGSE and the co-directors of the initiative, said in a statement. They referred to the preliminary results of Harvard’s early learning study, which showed that more than a third of parents are concerned about their preschoolers gaining the education and academic skills they will need to succeed in school.
“Now is the time for creative, collaborative solutions that will increase early education opportunities and positive outcomes for all children,” their statement said.
Many of the proposals seek to fill gaps in services for children from low-income families or improve the quality of informal child care and early learning settings, such as family, friend and neighbor care.
Putting technology to use in early learning is another theme in the proposals. For example, the PLAY Interactive Choice Board, one of the pitches for a pilot grant, is a “classroom touchscreen” that uses avatar teachers to interact with young children. And another project for the scaling track would use text messages to give caregivers research-based tips on learning activities for preschoolers.
Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution where he co-directs the Center on Children and Families, will serve as one of the judges and said in an email that he's interested in some innovative approaches to measuring the impact of early-childhood programs.
“I hope some of the applications give proposals on evaluating early-childhood programs,” he said. “I would especially be interested in proposals that define program quality and tell how to measure it.”
Junlei Li, a professor of psychology and human development at Saint Vincent College — also a judge — said in an email that his "favorite definition of 'innovation' comes from a group of teachers working in a low-income neighborhood public school in Pittsburgh. The motto of their work is: 'Innovation is finding something new inside something known.'"
Innovation doesn't necessarily have to be "fashionable and trendy," added Li, who also co-directs the Fred Rogers Center. "I believe if we search for the deeper and simpler ideas in our work, we will find that useful innovation ultimately depends more on empowering teachers and supporting families to help children, than on any technological gadgetry, or fancy facility, or packaged curriculum or products."