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November 30, 2023 | Tom Ballard

Nashville team named one of 18 finalists for VITAL Prize Challenge

The $6 million competition is focused on developing the next generation of learning technologies for K-12 students.

A team from Nashville led by Will Hedgecock, a Research Scientist and Adjunct Assistant Professor at Vanderbilt University, is one of 18 finalists in the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Visionary Interdisciplinary Teams Advancing Learning (VITAL) Prize Challenge, a competition investing in teams developing the next generation of learning technologies for K-12 students.

The $6 million competition is made possible through a partnership between NSF and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Schmidt Futures, and the Walton Family Foundation. Each of the 18 advancing teams was judged based on whether its solution fulfills a need, has strong potential to impact and improve student learning, and uses participatory and evidence-based design practices.

Teams are divided evenly across three technology tracks – Rapid and Continuous Learning Assessment, Mathematical Literacy to Promote a Future STEM Workforce, and Other Innovations in Translational Learning Technologies – to support diverse communities of K-12 students and teachers. The Nashville team was a finalist in the third category.

During the final round of the VITAL Prize Challenge, each team will receive an additional $50,000 in research and development funding to build upon its existing training and mentorship. These funds will specifically enable them to continue to develop a prototype, work with their educator mentor, and test that their solution is market-ready and scalable in inclusive and equitable ways.

The Nashville-based team developed BeatBlox, a music-based framework for teaching computer science (CS). By connecting CS concepts to a subject of interest to people across diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, the learning process becomes more fun, engaging, and accessible to both educators and students. Teachers can tap into their students’ creativity, enabling them to create their own beats and make their own music, doing so through the context of a block-based visual programming environment that allows students to immersively learn computer science concepts through the act of making music. Teachers can also promote collaboration by allowing students to use their laptops as instruments within a digital orchestra. The most successful class projects are ones in which students are able to connect to concepts relevant to their own communities, explore personally motivating and interesting subjects, and take ownership over the design and creation process, all of which constitute the core of the BeatBlox educational methodology.

Other members of the BeatBlox team are listed as Akos Ledeczi, a Professor and Senior Research Scientist at Vanderbilt; Pascal Le Boeuf, a musician; and Corbette Doyle, a former Senior Lecturer at Vanderbilt.

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