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New Program to Invest in Digital Tools for K-12 Science Instruction

By guest blogger Sean Cavanagh

This post originally appeared on the Marketplace K-12 blog.

A new project will financially support efforts by education-technology companies and nonprofits to create innovative products in K-12 science—an area of study that organizers say is often shunned by investors.

The initiative will award grants to both for-profit companies and nonprofits. It is being run by NewSchools Ignite, a part of the NewSchools Venture Fund, a self-described "venture philanthropy" that has made investments in charter schools and other areas.

The Oakland, Calif.-based venture fund says a primary goal of NewSchools Ignite is to support ed-tech entrepreneurs who are focused on areas of education that have received scant attention from venture capitalists and other funders.

To date, a lot of the investment in K-12 education technology has flowed into products and services focused on English/language arts and math—not surprising, given federal testing mandates in those areas, and schools' demands for help in those subjects, said Tonika Cheek Clayton, a managing partner at NSVF.

NewSchools Ignite's first project, called the Science Learning Challenge, will attempt to chip away at that imbalance.

"The general ecosystem for those markets is just more robust" than it is for science, Cheek Clayton said in an interview.

The venture fund wants to focus on areas "of the ed-tech landscape where innovation is noticeably lacking," she added. "We want to invest in entrepreneurs who can really ignite students' curiosity in science."

In trying to gauge K-12 systems' greatest needs, NewSchools officials interviewed teachers and conducted market research, Cheek Clayton said. Schools' need for digital tools for science is likely to come into clearer focus in the years ahead, as states attempt to adhere to the Next Generation Science Standards, she argued, and more broadly, as they look for ways to keep students engaged in science topics throughout their K-12 careers.

The NewSchools Ignite effort calls itself an accelerator, an effort that typically provides businesses with both financial support and guidance in exchange for an equity stake in the company. But the NewSchools effort will not receive equity in the projects it helps support, Clayton said.

The effort will initially provide a total of $1.5 million to science projects, with awards that could run anywhere between $50,000 and $150,000. 

The deadline to apply is Sept. 4, with awards expected to be announced in the fall, Cheek Clayton said.

NewSchools Ignite says it will partner with WestEd to provide winners of grants with a "research-based approach to product development." WestEd will advise companies and nonprofits with recommendations grounded in research on science education, and will collaborate with grant winners on small-scale studies focused on products' feasibility and usability in classrooms.

Efforts to encourage K-12 ed-tech entrepreneurs to conduct high-quality research on their products appear to be gaining traction. Education Week recently reported on the Jefferson Education Accelerator, a commercial effort assisted by the University of Virginia that will give digital education developers financial backing in exchange for agreeing to subject their goods and services to various forms of academic research.

"The ed-tech ecosystem is bubbling over with talent and ideas, yet teachers nationwide have identified a void in digital tools that support science learning across the K-12 spectrum," said Stacey Childress, the CEO of the NewSchools Venture Fund, in a statement.

The new effort will "mobilize entrepreneurs to develop their most promising ideas to fill this void," she added, "and give them opportunities to receive invaluable feedback from educators and researchers."


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