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Flint Provider Empowerment Program



Video by Eric Shaw

The Provider Empowerment Program, led by Toko Oshio at the University of Michigan-Flint and Jeff Kupperman, supports child care providers throughout Flint by addressing serious challenges and unmet needs of families impacted by the water crisis. Their efforts have helped connect license-exempt and Family, Friend and Neighbor (FFN) child care providers with important support mechanisms and resources, while working to address government policies that inhibit participation in the child care subsidy system.

The Problem Behind the Problem: Applying Human-Centered Design to Child Care in Flint

Article by Kelsey Keeves


Early childhood development and education research targeted at improving the developmental trajectories of the children affected by the Flint, Mich. water crisis is a priority at the University of Michigan-Flint. In support of this goal, UM-Flint assistant professor of education Toko Oshio was able to utilize funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to explore the challenges and unmet needs of child care providers in Flint.  

Oshio, who leads the Racial, Economic & Environmental Justice Research Cluster at UM-Flint and is a faculty affiliate with its Urban Institute for Racial, Economic, and Environmental Justice, was not interested in pursuing a career in education until she started a part-time job teaching English to three- and four-year-olds in Japan. She discovered she had a strong interest in how children develop and learn, and so Oshio moved to the U.S. to study child development. She came to Michigan more than 20 years ago as an international student at Michigan State University and joined UM-Flint as an assistant professor in early childhood education in 2015. 

“The exciting part of studying child development is you’re always working with kids and families. I’m curious to get to know what they need or want, and I think that excites and motivates me to come up with better ideas on how to support them,” said Oshio.

Oshio initially planned to create an online learning platform that Jeff Kupperman, her former UM-Flint colleague with experience in educational technology, would be well suited to develop. But when Kupperman joined the project, his background in human-centered design (an approach that emphasizes the importance of understanding the problem from the perspective of the people affected by that problem) led them to reevaluate the central question of the research project: what resources are most valuable to child care providers in Flint?

Kupperman’s experience with a human-centered design approach to educational technology, partnered with Oshio’s child development research background, led to the creation of the Provider Empowerment Program. The program is supported by an online platform that provides resources and guidance on how to become a license-exempt child care provider to the family, friends and neighbors providing child care in Flint.

Kupperman taught at UM-Flint for 16 years after earning a Ph.D. in educational technology from the Ann Arbor campus. His research concentrates on helping students develop educational technologies that would be applicable to real-world solutions, which led him to approach his work from a human-centered design perspective. 

“Unless you've really spent the time to understand what the world looks like from the perspective of the people that you're trying to help, you probably don't understand the problem and your solution probably isn't the best solution,” said Kupperman.

He also applies this human-centered design approach to the nonprofit organization he leads and his work with the Interactive Communications & Simulations Group, a university initiative that creates online learning programs to bring together U-M faculty and students with K-12 teachers and students. His nonprofit organization, InGlobal Learning Design, develops learning technologies and takes on instructional design projects like online course design, rapid prototyping and web development.

“I've learned more and more about the tools and techniques for doing human-centered design better. And so that's what I've been able to bring to this project, this idea of, don't just come in with a solution. Spend time understanding what the problem is, frame the problem, and then come up with lots and lots of solutions and see which one works,” said Kupperman.

Oshio also emphasized that utilizing human-centered design allows researchers to discover what questions they should be asking and to find the right solutions for the communities involved.

“We really have to utilize empathy and take their perspectives.” 

She stressed the child care issues their project addresses are deeply rooted in government policy. Oshio and Kupperman are currently working on grants that will allow them to analyze policy and its implementation related to child care so they can improve upon the systems that were developed to help the people most affected.

“Approaching research with human-centered design also means it’s scalable, so we can move to the other communities and start talking and actually listening to them. We can ask what are the really pressing issues in child care? If we can identify the need and define the problem the right way, then we can find the solution,” said Oshio.

U-M Poverty Solutions Policy Brief: Designing Subsidies for the Entire Child Care Provider Landscape by Kelly Wilcox, Toko Oshio and Jeff Kupperman


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