Stephen Colbert To Award Research Competition Prize

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 18, 2011 2 min read
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Fans of education data-mining—or comedian Stephen Colbert—take notice: A new research competition with a host of edu-celebrity judges could land you a trip to “Colbert Nation.”, an online charity that pairs teachers’ classroom requests for equipment and resources with contributors, has opened its database to researchers and “data-crunchers” with a contest to develop an analysis or application with the best potential to change education. The winner and three friends will attend a taping of the Comedy Central political satire “The Colbert Report,” where fake-pundit Colbert will hand over a trophy.

The web site uses a crowd-sourcing system in which teachers request help with a problem or support for a classroom project—everything from a field trip to a history museum to new science lab equipment—and one or more donors pitch in to support the proposal. In more than a decade since the site launched in 2000, it has gathered more than 300,000 project requests from 165,000 teachers at 43,000 public schools. Together, the donations have been worth more than $80 million.

“We do hope these 300,000 classroom projects will be the basis for inspiration and discoveries, but we also hope the researchers will come up with stuff that would never have occurred to our teachers or staff or even our donors,” said Charles Best, DonorsChoose’s founder and CEO.

The competition will award $1,000 gift cards, trips and other goodies for those who make the most helpful apps or analysis in seven categories. The overall prize will be judged by a big-name panel including Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post, former New York City schools chief Joel Klein, Teach For America Founder Wendy Kopp and venture capitalist Fred Wilson.

It sounds like the competition may make for some interesting tinkering for the research crowd. The DonorsChoose database does not collect the sort of information that would make a straightforward effectiveness study easy; the only post-grant information comes from essays teachers write a few weeks or months after the project, describing what happened. But researchers would have access to a plethora of information about the requested projects, the type of schools and students, and the different donors. The group has also collected specialized information on requests from schools with high concentrations of military children.

Among the examples of research entries suggested by the group:

• Identify trends in geographic requests that could point lawmakers or bigger grant-making foundations to educational needs, such as an increase in teachers requesting science equipment.

• Determine what types of requests tend to generate the most interest and why.

• Develop an application that allows people to see what requests are being made by local schools.

Get creative, and you could be the next in a long line of thoughtful education interviews by one of cable’s truthiest pundits.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.