June 19, 2017 04:30 PM

A teacher uses Minecraft to engage with a student, an example of tech-aided learning.
Photo courtesy Gigabit Community Fund

[Editor's Note: Due to Tropical Storm Cindy, the Open House has been postponed. A webinar for interested parties has been scheduled for Wednesday, June 21 at 1 p.m. You can view it here.]

Browser giant Mozilla has begun soliciting project proposals from thinkers and tinkerers with ideas for leveraging Lafayette's fiber optic network to advance learning. The announcement makes good on a $150,000 line of sprint grants that Mozilla, the company behind popular web browser Firefox, awarded Lafayette earlier this year.

Mozilla liaison Leah Ruffin, the national fund's boots on the ground, says Mozilla has begun accepting letters of intent for the first of two rounds of funding, but will close that phase on July 5, with an eye toward the August 1 deadline for full proposals in this round.

Although Lafayette was selected in March, Mozilla’s recent announcement puts a tight window on interested parties looking to compete in the first round funding.

The fund had been in a holding pattern while the search for a liaison was ongoing. With Ruffin in place, Mozilla's work begins. Ruffin is a Louisiana native who's worked in philanthropy in Los Angeles, Calif., and Washington, D.C. She's currently based in Baton Rouge.

Mozilla will officially launch the process with an open house on Wednesday. Ruffin says the event is the first engagement in a long relationship between Lafayette and Mozilla through its Gigabit Community Fund, and a crucial commingling of local innovators across community sectors.

“This is an opportunity to build a pipeline, so that over the next several months, we’re having events, we’re hosting gatherings and the folks who do ultimately receive funding are able to engage other community members,” Ruffin says. “So over time not only will the knowledge and the interest build, but hopefully the pipeline. For the folks who don’t have a sense [of what the fund is] but know that this is something they have some interest in and curiosity about, we want to nurture that.”

Through the Gigabit Community Fund, Mozilla will award grants of up to $30,000 to worthy projects through the end of 2018, when the company’s cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation ends.

The tight window shouldn’t discourage applicants with unrefined ideas, Ruffin says, given the long arc of the program’s relationship with Lafayette. While she’s already heard from some applicant teams, she says the fund’s presence in Lafayette is about building momentum for education innovations that take advantage of Lafayette’s fiber optic network. That’s the fund’s hook — using broadband access to close gaps in educational attainment and access to information.

Fiber is thus a tool, Ruffin says, something that applicants need not have an expert’s understanding of to make a successful pitch for funding. Across its stable of five communities — including Austin, Texas; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Kansas City, Mo. and Eugene, Ore. — Mozilla has successfully funded 44 projects in a variety of disciplines, both in and out of the classroom.

Project teams have used funding to integrate virtual reality into first responder training in Kansas City, to build a cloud-based audio mixing tool in Chattanooga and create a digital mock city council in Austin.

To the extent that any of these ideas are scalable — that is, usable in other communities — Mozilla gives larger individual awards for projects with cross-city collaboration.

Mozilla has posted some successful applications online to give a sense of what the selection committee is looking for from applicants. You can fill out a letter of intent form here.