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Innovation Competition Inspires Students' Big Ideas

Master's candidate Megan Marcus' FuelEd was awarded first prize at the Education Innovation Pitch Competition.

On Thursday, February 2, a packed crowd turned out to the Harvard University i-lab to hear seven students pitch their education ideas to judges at the second annual Education Innovation Pitch Competition (EIPC).

“The huge turnout in part is due to the work HGSE is doing to help foster these ideas,” said Ed L.D. student Beth Rabbitt, who directs BRIDGE, an Ed School organization that aims to unite students, professors, and professionals from all of Harvard’s schools to foster the future of education innovation within a shared, collaborative space.

This year there were 70 students who submitted plans from across the university. From that number, 16 made it to the semifinals and seven presented at the final round. With ideas ranging from websites aiming to fill the gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and math through craft-making to a health newsletter geared toward elementary students, the pitches were broad, diverse, and original.

Finalists had five minutes to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges including Professor Monica Higgins, Associate Dean for Planning and Research Keith Collar, and Fulcrum Investments President Dan Leeds.

“This was really well worth coming in from Washington,” Leeds said, noting how impressive the entries were this year. “It took us almost twice as long to decide the winners [as it has in the past]. We had a hard time deciding.”

In the end, FuelEd – a nonprofit that seeks to reduce teacher turnover by creating a curriculum that works on developing interpersonal relationships among teachers – took home the $6,000 first prize. FuelEd is the brainchild of HGSE master’s candidate Megan Marcus, who told the judges, “America’s teachers are drowning, but only because we haven’t given them an oxygen tank.”

Marcus came to the Ed School with the intention to launch FuelEd. She said she spent a lot of time thinking about the high teacher turnover rate and pondered what was missing from teacher preparation that might be causing it. Her encounters with classmates – many whom had been teachers – further focused her thoughts on improving teacher training through research and building interpersonal communication skills. She worked with a team that included fellow Ed School students Tracy Money, Radhika Khandelwal, Anu Oza, Meaghan Dowdle, Irene Chen, Christopher Vaughan, and Chris Kajander, and Lesley University student Pearl Hill. “This diverse group has been immensely helpful as the experiences they have shared from their time as former teachers really underscore the need for FuelEd,” Marcus said.

Now, after winning the grand prize, she said she can really get started on turning FuelEd into a reality. “I am building the pilot curriculum now and this will provide some padding in the pocket to get this started,” Marcus said.

In addition, The Plot Thickens – an interactive storytelling and story-building website for tweens to help build literacy skills heading into high school by Ed School students Aaron Morris, Bryn Keating, Chelsea DeLorme, Rebecca Fisher, and Gabrielle Santa-Donato  – received the $2,500 second-place award. In third place, receiving a $1,500 award, was Harvard Kennedy School student REy Faustino, who created One Degree, a website tool that will be used to provide an additional intervention to connect kids and families to poverty fighting resources.

UPDATE: On June 20, 2012, Marcus and FuelEd won the Educational Services of America Prize for Innovation in the fields of Special Education and At-Risk Students at the 2012 Milken-Penn GSE Education Business Plan Competition.

UPDATE: In 2016, Marcus was elected as an Ashoka Fellow, "leading social entrepreneurs who we recognize to have innovative solutions to social problems and the potential to change patterns across society."