A version of this letter was shared on Iridescent’s blog and with it’s community of volunteer mentors, all of whom are professional engineers and scientists. As Iridescent’s model has developed we have faced challenges with finding the right role for mentors in online learning and blended learning environments. I wanted to share my gratitude and thoughts with mentors, and now with you.

Dear Mentors,

As we begin a new year, I want to take a minute to thank you for believing in us, for stepping out into the unknown with us and not giving up, despite some of our missteps!

I started Iridescent in 2006 as a young engineer with a lot of confidence founded on very little experience. I wanted to develop a large scale, low cost, deep impact model that could empower children from underserved communities to become innovators, inventors, entrepreneurs and leaders. I spent a year studying large health and education programs. Three things stuck out to me: 

  • To have a significant impact on all stakeholders, the intervention needs to span many years.
  • Human beings thrive on challenges, and find the ‘hard part’ is usually the fun part! However, we need to feel that we can succeed at the challenge before we tackle it. This is called “self-efficacy”— the belief that we have the confidence and competence to meet the challenge–and it takes time to develop.
  • Innovative approaches require tapping into new resources. For Iridescent, professionals from industry and academia seemed like an interesting pool to draw from. Rough calculations showed that the supply could potentially keep up with demand. For instance, on the supply side there are ~6 million researchers engaged in research (not including engineers and other professionals working in STEM and IT fields). On the demand side, there are 700 million people in the world living below the poverty line (43 million in the US) with ~300 million being under the age of 18. Thus, each researcher could conceivably mentor and support between 10-50 students.

These three factors served as constraints for our work and we spent the next ten years exploring different approaches. We tried games and mobile apps, Maker Spaces, Digital Badges and hands-on programs for all ages — all of these solutions supported by varying combinations of parents, educators and mentors.

Through this exploration we identified a few very loud signals. The loudest signal was that of parental involvement (an observation that is also strongly supported by research). The second loudest was that of mentor involvement (also well documented in research). The question then was how could we connect mentors with needy communities in a scalable way over many years? Technology (or online mentoring) was clearly the answer, but the “how” needed to be grounded in the core principles of cognitive psychology:

  • Goal-setting: Both the mentor and the mentee needed to know what the goal of the interaction was.
  • Feedback on progress: Both needed to see the positive impact of their collaboration at frequent intervals
  • Real meaning and purpose: In contrast to arbitrary leaderboards and badges, we learned that the mile markers of progress needed to be authentic and truly representative of learning gains. This of course, is much harder to do instead of simply assigning points based on activity.

We launched our online mentoring platform Curiosity Machine, which is currently the only platform where mentors can model problem solving and provide customized feedback on hands-on projects that students are working on (see for yourself!). The goal of the platform is to provide personalized troubleshooting advice to students as they work on their projects, and to  connect them with real world mentors who can model problem solving, curiosity, creativity and perseverance.

As we soldiered on, with the help of pioneers like you, we noticed a few encouraging trends in the external environment. Education was identified as the most powerful means of achieving the UN’s 17 Goals for Sustainable Development– especially in forging more just, peaceful, tolerant and inclusive societies. Emphasis was placed on global citizenship, revamping outmoded curriculum and learning materials, and leveraging mobile technology to make learning personalized, fun and meaningful [Global Education First Initiative]. Internet access is a barrier, but figuring out learning platforms that develop self-driven learners is the harder problem to solve!

New Frontiers for 2017

As we scale up and reach more students, we are encountering some knotty challenges that we need to continue innovating on:

  • Quicker Feedback: In order to make sure students are safe, we have made online mentor-mentee interactions asynchronous, and as a result we are encountering difficulty in providing quick feedback to each group that can keep them motivated. There are many different technologies we can use to notify each group, but children under the age of 13 have limited access to these technologies. One approach we are experimenting with is to schedule live calls with mentors with a classroom of students, who can simply walk up to the camera as they are done and share their challenges with the mentors who can troubleshoot right there and then.
  • Blended learning: Coming up with solutions to our design challenges is hard in itself, and adding the complexity of using an online interface sometimes proves too much for the educators and parents facilitating students while they build.. Students and facilitators tend to focus on the people right there in the room, rather than what is on a small screen, online and many miles away. Thus, the quality of the videos and photos uploaded are low and mentors have difficulty understanding how to help. We are working hard to improve the quality of training for the facilitators (educators and parents), as well as the mentors, so that everyone understands the challenges the other group is facing.
  • Global Impact: Our mission has always been to empower and equip the world’s most needy children to become innovators, entrepreneurs and leaders. We finally have the platform, the training and the analytics to connect mentors with students all across the United States as well as worldwide. We have relationships with more than 4000 schools and community organizations. We would like to deepen those relationships through mentorship so that students can have personalized guidance towards advancing their problem solving and design thinking skills.
  • Deepening Impact: Finally we want to move beyond just one design challenge and motivate students to engage in design challenges on a regular basis — at least once a month. This level of practice will result in real gains in observation skills, designing, planning, troubleshooting, knowledge of basic physics and engineering principles and build up to creative and innovative thinking. What we have learned over the past decade is that students need to see the value of learning. The joy of creation is powerful, but not enough to continue motivating them over long periods of time. Social approval and recognition can be leveraged to provide this needed long-term support. What is effective is challenging students to solve problems in their immediate world and community. Our technology entrepreneurship program – Technovation – has been successful in reaching all sorts of communities because we challenge middle and high school girls to look around themselves, their environments and see what they can solve by programming a mobile app. This approach is much more exciting than asking them to join a coding course. Similarly, we need to identify ways to motivate younger students to solve engineering problems that impact their immediate world. For instance, one challenge for 4th graders could be to design a moving toy for their younger siblings. We need more ideas and need your help!

“I don’t know. Let’s find out together”

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Each of you has something incredible to pass on. First is your own journey, how you reached where you have gone, what obstacles you faced, who encouraged you and what motivated you. All those factors, when shared, can empower and inspire someone else and change their life.

The second is the skills you practice daily – problem solving, troubleshooting, innovating, practicing curiosity, creativity and perseverance.

Today with the help of technology, a small group of dedicated, passionate people have even more power now to change the world for the better. All it takes is a collective vision and strength of spirit.

I invite you to join me in this next leg of our journey toward growth and exploration.

I invite you to be curious and courageous, to learn some new skills and to not be afraid of saying “I don’t know” in front of a child, and following that up with “Let’s find out together!”

Thank you for your dedication, patience, and passion.

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Tara Chklovski,
Founder and CEO, Iridescent

I leave you with a quote and a video from the Dalai Lama.

“Old friends pass away, new friends appear. It is just like the days. An old day passes, a new day arrives. The important thing is to make it meaningful: a meaningful friend – or a meaningful day.”

― Dalai Lama