Eyes on the XPRIZE

Can a $15-million global competition spark a digital revolution for children with no access to schools?

Starting with her self-designed Drew major–American Studies with an emphasis on race and ethnicity–Emily Musil Church C’00 forged an unexpected career as a strategist harnessing technology to address global challenges. And now she’s about to make a big decision that could impact the education of a quarter-billion children in developing countries around the world.

As executive director for the Global Learning XPRIZE, Musil Church oversees a global competition to develop an open-source educational software program that children can use to teach themselves basic reading, writing and arithmetic. Five finalists were selected from the many teams around the world that submitted programs. Those five programs were loaded onto tablets and given to 3,000 children in Tanzania for field-testing. The program that proves to be most effective as a learning tool will be named the winner, and its team will collect the lion’s share of a $15-million prize underwritten by Silicon Valley billionaire Elon Musk.

For Musil Church, who first visited Africa as a Drew student studying abroad in Ivory Coast, the opportunity to focus her energies on life-changing solutions is irresistible. The ambitions of XPRIZE also match her own and perfectly echo Drew’s mission to prepare students to “add to the world’s good by responding to the urgent challenges of our time.”

“All of our challenges are meant to be not something that brings about just small changes, but an exponential shift that will be for the better,” explains Musil Church, who adds that “it’s really exciting to be working somewhere where every day I work on solutions and not dwell on problems.”

To select the best software program, Musil Church’s team is analyzing data on how the Tanzanian children used their tablets during the testing phase of the global competition. The data will help to quantify some pretty profound questions, including, says Musil Church, “What happens to communities when technology is introduced? Are boys and girls using the software equally? How can we make it something that’s scalable for the quarter-billion children around the world who can’t read, write and do basic math?”

Musil Church joined Global Learning XPRIZE after a decade as a college professor specializing in African history, human rights and women’s global issues. During that period, she earned a Fulbright-Hayes Research Fellowship and helped design complex research projects on three continents—all of which prepared her for her big decision, which has ramifications even beyond the learning gains of children in Africa. As she puts it, “At the end of the day, what the world will have access to is something much bigger.”

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