Designing a Research-Driven Awards Initiative

A new paper illustrates how exploratory research and gap analysis led to the first-of-its-kind UL Innovative Education Award competition for nonprofits.

by Kate FlinnerUduak Grace ThomasKelly Keena
Dec 14, 2020

In 2013, Underwriters Laboratories, an international leader in safety science, had a challenge: how could they identify and promote fresh approaches to safety and sustainability? Underwriters Laboratories had long been recognized as a STEM-driven global expert in safety testing and standards for things like appliances, electronics, and aviation. Recently, the not-for-profit organization had broadened its scope to include the overlapping categories of environment, human health, and societal wellbeing and was interested in STEM learning in the context of safety. To identify and think through new ideas related to safety, Underwriters Laboratories teamed up with the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) and social science researchers at Knology.

As a first step, the partners undertook an exploratory study and gap analysis to assess the landscape of safety-focused programs that use the environment as a pathway to STEM learning, also called E-STEM. The Knology research team performed an online review of E-STEM programming, surveyed STEM learning professionals about perspectives on innovation, and hosted a workshop for STEM educators on needs and gaps. They also interviewed safety leaders and asked a panel of safety and E-STEM experts to prioritize areas of innovation for non-profit programs (see here for the full report). The research results showed that there was innovation already happening in programs across the world, particularly in the United States and Canada. But there were also barriers: many programs lacked funding and there were misunderstandings about the connections between safety and E-STEM.

Equipped with this research, Underwriters Laboratories saw a way to address their challenge. They did not need to create a new educational program to spread the word about creative approaches to safety. They only needed to gather together the exemplary programs that already exist and provide a platform for advancing their work. The team also recognized the need for funding to promote new approaches to safety learning.

And so the UL Innovative Education Award (ULIEA) was born. This white paper details the journey of the award initiative from its early days until the present. It tracks the initiative’s beginnings as a challenge for safety science education, the multifaceted research used to pinpoint opportunities and gaps, the development of a fledgling awards program for nonprofits, and the blossoming of a powerful model for mission-driven corporate leadership. The paper can also be found in Underwriters Laboratories' digital safety science library (see here).

Underwriters Laboratories, NAAEE, and Knology designed the award as a competition for nonprofits from across the United States and Canada, and launched the program in 2015. To enter, nonprofits of all shapes and sizes could submit a written application that included a description of their work. Next, a multi-phase panel of judges reviewed each application, using a rubric to advance the submissions for the most innovative programs. Ultimately, the judging panel selected five winners each year and an additional set of honorable mentions. Winners received cash prizes from $25,000 to $100,000 USD, as well as mentoring from Underwriters Laboratories safety experts.

From 2015 to 2019, the initiative received about 550 applications, announced over 25 winners, and awarded over $1.25 million in cash prizes. Leaders from each winning nonprofit were welcomed into the ULIEA network, a community of innovators who mutually support and advance their work. That network continues to thrive as members collaborate and generate new ideas for E-STEM and safety science learning.

Let’s Put It to Work

Grant Officers & Leaders at Foundations - The UL Innovative Education Award is a model for a mission-driven idea working at scale. The award competition design enabled Underwriters Laboratories to pool the creative ideas and leaders already at work in the E-STEM field and showcase them to the broader safety field. By investing in winners’ talent and risk-taking, the award initiative could support the field and build a strong community around safety-focused E-STEM. It also met a critical need for the E-STEM field: an opportunity for unrestricted funding that winners could apply to their area of need. An evaluation study showed this model fosters further innovation and broadens the reach of programs that are already doing good work on the ground.

Corporate Social Responsibility Professionals - This white paper explores how an international not-for-profit used social science research to identify both a need and an opportunity to expand its work. This model can also apply to corporations and other for-profit entities. By building an award competition designed to convene leaders around ideas of innovation and safety, this initiative enabled Underwriters Laboratories to advance its mission to create a safer world for all people. At the same time, the initiative has supported a wide range of educational programs -- and by extension, myriad communities -- with diverse needs, making it an example of an effective corporate social responsibility program. Professionals in positions focused on corporate social responsibility can consider how social science research can inform their projects and answer questions such as, what do an organization’s communities need? What groups might be part of that community that have not been considered before? What might be a novel way to meet the needs of those communities and at the same time drive forward the organization or corporation’s social goals?

About the Initiative

Since 2013, Knology has been a part of the UL Innovative Education Award team. Underwriters Laboratories’ Education and Outreach team continues to lead the initiative in partnership with DoGoodery, a social impact agency for change makers. Knology conducted the exploratory research, developed the award and judging rubric, and continues to facilitate the application and judging processes. For more about the UL Innovative Education Award, see here.

Photo: Students working with the Ocean Discovery Institute, a 2018 winner of the UL Innovative Education Award. Photo courtesy of Ocean Discovery Institute and Underwriters Laboratories.

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