Meet the K-12 Tech Innovators of the VITAL Prize Challenge – Digital Promise

Meet the K-12 Tech Innovators of the VITAL Prize Challenge

Five young adults working collaboratively around a desk

October 24, 2023 | By and

The 54 semi-finalist teams of the VITAL Prize Challenge are educators, researchers, and product developers who are inspired to develop innovative K-12 learning technologies that improve the experiences of those who have been historically and systematically excluded from learning and education systems. We are excited to share more about their inspirations and experiences as product developers and participants of the challenge.

What inspired you to focus on K-12 education product development, and how did you begin your journey in this field?

“As a teacher and educational technology specialist, I have really enjoyed having a voice in education product development through this project. I began my journey in this field by lending my voice and education expertise to other education learning platforms as an ambassador or just [a] thought partner to their teams.”

Renee Dawson, Educator Mentor
Focus: Adaptive learning platform for out-of-school children

“I never thought I’d be working in literacy. My background is in medicine and my focus was on child health. Literacy is one of the biggest predictors of adult health. I found this to be true time and again in my years of medical practice. It’s hard to thrive in an age of information if you can’t access it. We are also focused on the 30% of emergent bilinguals and children with different home dialects in the United States. As a child of immigrants, I understand the unintentional divide that happens when curriculum is written without cultural relevance. So, from a health and equity perspective, I find myself excited to work on an early literacy solution to help our younger learners develop into strong, lifelong readers.”

Aparna Ramanathan, Team Lead
SoundTown: Speech-interactive literacy builder and assessment tool designed to close the most common reading skills gap

“I began my career as a high school English teacher in Washington, D.C., and New York City. My first “products” were lessons, curriculum maps, and other artifacts, from tiered readings to documentary film festivals. To this day, I see many similarities between the process of designing lessons and developing educational software—both are about creating meaningful learning experiences. I started transitioning to the world of edtech as a curriculum and assessment developer. Whether it was crafting technology-enhanced assessment questions or collaborating on an augmented reality art product for English Language Arts (ELA), I began to glimpse the creative potential of applying technology to ELA pedagogy.”

Kate Dalton, Team Lead
Mucktracker Media Literacy Toolset: Standards-aligned activities and assessments for K-12 students

What are some of the most significant challenges you’ve encountered while developing your product, and how have you overcome them?

“It’s very easy to design for an idealized classroom where students and teachers have unlimited time, patience, and interest, where the Wi-Fi never goes out, and where instructions are self-explanatory. Unfortunately, real classrooms face all kinds of challenges that hit at different levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy [of Needs]. We’ve had to constantly revise and refine our concept based on real feedback we’ve gotten from pilot users. As an example, our initial plan was to develop a personalized homework system that optimized student review schedules. We quickly learned that the students we’re aiming to support have varying technology access at home, often have family commitments or other time obligations, and frequently lack the academic support factors to help them get unstuck if problems arise. As a consequence, we completely restructured our solution to focus on in-class usage, supporting teachers and learners in synchronous-yet-differentiated activities.”

Sam Saarinen, Team Lead
Study Coach: Integrated spaced repetition and continuous assessment of pre-algebra competencies

“Developing an educational solution like Dreami for K-12 mentorship involves overcoming various challenges related to user engagement, data security, customization, integration, scalability, feedback management, and more. By addressing these challenges with a user-centric approach, technical expertise, and a commitment to ongoing improvement, we have been able to create a platform that enhances mentorship opportunities and support within K-12 education, ultimately benefiting students and educators alike.”

Serena Patel, Team Member
Dreami: Mentorship for learners to promote career readiness and social capital

“Having to narrow in on a specific problem [was one of the most significant challenges]. I hear about so many frustrations in education and wish I had the resources to solve all of them.”

Caitlyn Hutchison, Team Member
FrenalyticsEDU: Patented personalized learning and data collection software for early and special education

Can you share a specific success story or something you have learned through your participation in the VITAL Prize Challenge?

“Through my participation in the VITAL Prize Challenge, I had an important learning experience that shed light on the issue of learner variability. As I delved into the challenge, I discovered a significant flaw in my own school district’s dual enrollment programs. While on the surface, these programs seemed to offer valuable opportunities, they lacked the necessary support to accommodate the diverse learning needs of students. This realization is driving me to advocate for more inclusive and adaptable approaches. I want to reinforce the importance of addressing learner variability and the impact it can have on students’ success in dual enrollment programs.”

Samuel Reed, Educator Mentor Automated video editing and content curation of video recordings for accessible learning

“VITAL helped us look at populations that are both underserved and bring different traditions to learning and teaching. We have begun conversations with tribal schools in the US to determine how we can best infuse our technology with the ability to represent their cultural perspectives. A unique feature of MatchMaker means this same strategy can be used for other underrepresented populations without judgment or impinging on any group’s beliefs. This also supports greater sharing between educators and institutions and generates a greater audience for organizations that create resources to address what are considered niche needs.”

Michael Jay, Team Lead
MatchMaker: Translating between regional competencies and identifying resources

“I have learned that there are computer scientists working to make technology accessible to all children with the motivation of making the world more accessible to underprivileged youth.”

Heliana Ramirez, Educator Mentor
trubel&co: Champions underserved youth to tackle wicked societal challenges with data, design, and tech

“Participating in the VITAL Prize Challenge is a game-changer for my professional journey. Our vision is to use technology to tackle the achievement gap among K-12 students. The competition taught me the importance of empathetic design, understanding the unique challenges faced by these students and their teachers. This experience taught me that innovation in education requires empathy, collaboration, and technology. By addressing real-world challenges, we can make a lasting impact on education and students’ lives.”

Serena Patel, Team Member
Dreami: Mentorship for learners to promote career readiness and social capital

In the context of K-12 education, what are some current trends or innovations in product development that you believe are shaping the future of learning?

“Of course, Generative AI is taking front stage at the moment. It will shape how we learn because it will shape how we teach. We will have to be more creative with assessments for one thing (something education researchers have been suggesting for quite some time). I think ‘immersive learning’ is broadening in scope. We can be ‘immersive’ by flying to Paris to learn French or by putting on a headset and bringing Paris to our bedroom. We can read about history in a textbook or we can use a combination of Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) and Augmented Reality (AR) to help our students ‘walk’ through secret tunnels used during World War I. These technologies still lead to ‘immersion’ which has been a part of the learning process for decades, but technology makes immersion more accessible.”

Alicia Johnson, Team Member
“Quinceañera Planner” by Redshift Education: Immersive Spanish conversation game to plan a party

“This is an exciting time for work-based learning in K-12 education. There are endless opportunities to create alliances with public and private sector partners who have the resources to innovate the learning process. The real challenge is creating access to these resources for all learners so that our future workforce is prepared for the next big evolution.”

Douglas Zweber, Team Lead
GIGPilot Workforce Platform and Mobile App:

Learn more about all of the VITAL Prize Challenge teams and their innovative ideas at In November 2023, the Judging Panel will select 18 teams to advance to the Final Round of the challenge and receive an additional $50,000 to develop their prototype further with customized training and their dedicated educator mentors.

Visit to learn more about the challenge and sign up for the mailing list, and reach out to us with questions at

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