Thank you SolidWorks and Volunteers!

There have been a few momentous events in Iridescent’s history. June 6th was one of these. Thanks to one dedicated volunteer, Srikant, we got together 20 (very brave) volunteers (10 from SolidWorks) to concurrently conduct hands-on science lessons for an hour for 240, 4th and 5th grade students.
This event was part of a bigger corporate social responsibility event conducted by our partner, L.A Works.
We conducted a brisk, training session two days before (at SolidWorks) , during which volunteers were introduced to Iridescent’s misson, given a demo lesson and requested to choose from some prepared lessons. The topics were Biomechanics, Aeronautics, Renewable Energy, Heat Transfer and Sound.

The two goals were i) to get children excited about science and ii) to provide a reference point for engineers interested in teaching science to children. Many times we get so used to our colleagues’ level of understanding that we forget how foreign our language may sound to a 4th grader. Through this relatively low-commitment approach, volunteers could quickly get a sense for what teaching in an urban classroom was like and whether they would like to participate in our longer, more intense courses.

The sessions achieved the above goals. The children enjoyed interacting with fresh, new people from different walks of life and of course, doing the actual activities. The volunteers quickly realized how challenging teaching can be, how dynamic the classroom environment is and how rewarding it is to inspire young minds.

This model works. On one side we have a huge pool of intelligent, highly qualified professionals and on the other we have an equally huge pool of children in need of mentorship and guidance.
You have the ability to inspire a child and change her life; to show how hard work, critical thinking, perseverance, curiosity and a love of learning are the ingredients for success.



Engineers as Teachers

How many of us have pursued a career because of a passionate mentor or teacher? I personally chose engineering mainly because my father shared his love for it with me.

Children in urban schools rarely come in contact with highly motivated, intense scientists or engineers. So when you go into their classrooms you change the way they think. You prove that they too can aspire to and pursue a career in science or engineering.

This experience was a very powerful for me. I decided to devote all my energies to motivating underserved children to develop important skills, work hard and aim high.

We need to build a society that can analyze situations, think objectively and make intelligent decisions. We have to change the world ourselves!

I started Iridescent, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing the best and most exciting science experiences to underserved communities. The model is essentially to help engineers use their skills to develop interesting, hands-on science activities for children and to inspire them to pursue a career in science or engineering.

The Aerospace & Mechanical Engineering Department at USC has been a very strong champion of this program. The department offers a course for undergraduate students (AME 490) that enables them to earn 3 credits for developing and teaching hands-on science courses. Over the past year, we have had 13 students who have conducted 9 courses reaching more than 270 children and parents. (Some of the courses we conduct are for entire families!)

Each course is for ten hours and the course topics are all very unique and real-world. So far we have developed and taught courses on: Aeronautics, Biomechanics of Diving, Cardiovascular Mechanics, Heat transfer and Energy Efficient Houses, Physics of Sailing, Renewable Energy, Rockets, Science of Sporting Equipment and Structural Color.

Every instructor goes through a 16-hour, training program in which he/she learns about motivation, interest, educational psychology, inquiry-based science, lesson planning and evaluation. The instructor also learns how to make assessments for each session and ensure that the students are always learning.

This model of Engineers as Teachers is very powerful as it changes not only the school children
that are being taught, but also the instructors.

The biggest challenge is communicating complex and abstract concepts such as Reynolds number, diffraction, dual nature of light, gravity etc without using any mathematical equations or scientific terms. You have to assume zero prior knowledge (regardless of the participant’s age) and then build up block by block.

The other rewarding aspect is learning about the community and witnessing firsthand a parent’s drive to provide the best for his/her child. We have had parents work two night-shifts and come for a session first thing in the morning. Another parent drove all the way from Santa Barbara (to Los Angeles) every Wednesday night to attend the sessions. It is very inspiring and humbling to come in contact with people who may be less educated than you but may have more ambition, more drive and more determination.

The next step for us is to bring more engineers into the program. We have many more schools than we can provide courses for.

We need passionate, dedicated, visionary engineers and scientists to help inspire a new generation to solve the world’s biggest problems.

Let’s make it happen!

Next Steps

Here is the plan for the Summer and Fall based on advice from ‘Growing Pains’ (an awesome book on management by Eric Flamholtz).

  • Spend a week planning and writing a realistic business plan. Stick it to the wall next to the computer.
  • Identify common, successful factors in the 4 schools this semester and develop a strategy for the fall.
  • Work on establishing trust and credibility with parents. E.g. Short activities at ‘Back to School’ Night with the parents.
  • Plan and conduct 4-5 courses in the Bay area in summer, 4-5 courses in LA in the fall and 1-2 courses in New York in the fall. Start testing scalability!

Other exciting happenings

  • I went to the NSTA (National Science Teachers Association) conference in Boston and it was by far the most exciting and inspiring conference I’ve ever been to. I met so many dedicated, science teachers, got invited to teach in schools all over and attended at least 20 hours of talks. I came back very energized and submitted 9 session proposals for next year’s conference in New Orleans. I think this is a great way to share all our hard-earned lessons and ideas with people who will put them to immediate use.
  • We got $10,000 from AAUW (American Association of University Women) to conduct 4 girls-only courses. We have to carefully choose 2 schools where we can start “Girls and Mothers only” courses and reliably expect 10-15 teams.

Spring 2008

We started the second semester of “Engineers as Teachers” and had a team of 14 engineers (some undergraduate students, some volunteering graduate students and some professional engineers). Based on last year’s experiences and the constraint of scheduling volunteers with full-time jobs, we decided to conduct 6 evening Family Science Courses.

The topics were all sooo exciting- Structural Color, Biomechanics of Diving, Science of sporting equipment, Sound, Cardiovascular mechanics and Renewable Energy.

Each course was of five sessions, held once a week for two hours. The response was quite unexpected. We started the Family Science program for the first time in three schools (Stevenson middle school in East LA, St. Agnes and Trinity St. Elementary near USC). We had roughly 10-22 families at each site. But we had less than five participants in the two schools where we had conducted morning sessions.

I was quite mortified at this response considering that the instructors had spent 8 weeks preparing for the courses. We tried the evening sessions for two weeks with not much improvement in the numbers. We decided to move the courses back to the morning so that all the children could still benefit from the instruction.

Lessons learned:

  • If you didn’t have the foresight to prevent a problem, don’t let pride or “consistency” slow you down. Focus on your end goals and don’t be afraid to change tactics.
  • Give your team members the complete picture. If you are trying out something new and don’t know how it’s going to turn out …. Say so…. Your team will feel more connected and in step with the organization’s goals and if things don’t work out, at least all of you are trying to solve the problem together.
  • Focus on the positive! Four out of the six Family Science courses continued in the evenings.

Here is some feedback from administrators, children and parents at these schools.

These lessons sometimes take a couple/three weeks to catch on with the families – they have never really done many activities like this, so you are serving many great purposes: educating our families about science and perhaps greater than that, teaching families how to participate in these kinds of activities. Great work! Pat Falzone, Trinity Street School

I know our parents and children have benefited immensely–they have never had an experience like this. Education at its finest. –Kathleen Doherty, St. Agnes

What did you like most?
That I did it with my family and learned how to make it a ball.5th grade student, Science of Sporting Equipment Course

The class seems very interesting just as much for the parents as it is for the students. Those in charge of instructing the class are very friendly and explain the projects very well. They seem very good for the school because they help students do new and different things that perhaps like parents or in they same school they don’t do it. Thank you for showing new things to our kids. Thank you to everyone who teach the sessions. Idalia Contreras , Mother of 5th grade student, Structural Color Course

Change the world!

We made exciting progress on the following fronts:

  • Identified a model that would extend learning beyond the course i.e. Family Science Courses.
  • Conducted a 40 hour course with 60 high school students in which they designed and built a city that ran on wind, water, solar (and human) power.

  • Developed a partnership with the Aerospace & Mechanical Engineering Department, USC through which undergraduate students earned 3 credits for teaching these courses. We started off the “Engineers as Teachers” course with 6 students in the fall. They conducted 8-18 hour courses on Aeronautics, Physics of Sailing, Renewable Energy and Rockets!

  • We conducted three Family Science Courses (in addition to 40 courses for children) in 2007. Two were in the morning (at Johnnie Cochran Middle School and Audubon Middle School) and one in the evening (Shenandoah St Elementary). We got about 4-8 parents for the morning courses and about 32 families (~ 80 participants) in the evening course.