Using online science tools in informal science education settings: Curiosity Machine at camp

By Rusty Nye

It’s understandable that many educators might approach the idea of using an online resource to teach STEM content with a hint of trepidation, given how much of an unknown of online interaction remains, but after a summer of using Curiosity Machine during a bio-robotic camp, I’ve found that it encourages students and teachers alike to develop a sense of perseverance through the practice of redesign. Curiosity Machine is Iridescent’s online learning platform that connects students to professional scientists and engineers through virtual mentorship—students build hands-on design challenges, iterate on their designs, and then share them online with mentors who offer feedback and support and encourage further redesign. After using Curiosity Machine with students all summer and seeing how powerfully it engaged students, I wanted to share what I’ve learned, in hopes of demonstrating how powerful online mentorship can be.

 How is online mentoring helpful?

As an educator with no formal science background, I understand it is often hard to explain science concepts, motivate students to embrace the engineering design process and encourage rebuilding as a positive step. This is where the idea of online mentoring is tremendously helpful in the classroom. I can stress the importance of a strong foundation during a skyscraper design challenge but it just doesn’t have the same effect as when an actual structural engineer weighs in.

During Curiosity Camp we made time each morning to check in online to see what feedback mentors had offered on the previous day’s challenge, and then students used that feedback to improve their designs. The feedback (and interest!) from an outside source proved to be a great motivator—which was most evident in students’ willingness to redesign as well as their final designs. The students were also able to directly ask an expert for help when a concept was unclear or if they were stuck on their project. As the camp director, this was very helpful for me since I wasn’t always able to give individual feedback to each child. It was also great to know that even if I didn’t have the answer to their science or engineering questions, their mentors would be there to help them.

There are benefits from this online mentorship beyond a functional design—students are able to interact directly with professional scientists and engineers, refining their understanding of what it actually means to be an engineer or scientist–and who can be one. Many of the students in Curiosity Camp came from underserved communities in the South Los Angeles area, and lacking exposure and access to professional engineers, did not fully understand what engineers actually do. In virtually meeting scientists and engineers from various backgrounds and working together with them, students developed a better of understanding of STEM fields and what it means to be a part of them. I like the idea that we are not only exposing students to the scientific concepts but also exposing them to STEM professionals and hopefully the pathways to becoming scientists and engineers becomes less bleak as a result.

How do you use an online resource to teach science and engineering?

Anyone can use the Curiosity Machine the way we did in Curiosity Camp—you don’t need a degree in science or engineering, only computer access and perseverance. The Curiosity Machine is set up to deliver scientific content in a fun and easy way that encourages students to explore the concepts not just learnthe concepts.
(First, it should be noted that all educators take the time to build the activities before trying them in the classroom. There is a level of difficulty with some activities that can be eliminated by simple tinkering and trouble shooting ahead of time. The educator should know the activity and be comfortable before bringing it to students. This time will also help educators feel more comfortable facilitating students’ building and even teaching STEM content.)
Inspiration: The first step in the design process is inspiration—Curiosity Machine does this in a few ways, the most explicit being the Inspiration videos. These videos feature a STEM professional describing their research and passion for science for about 2-5 minutes, and are part of every design challenge. They foster a sense of connection to scientists and engineers, in addition to providing later inspiration for the design challenge. For Curiosity Camp, we would start each new design challenge by watching the appropriate scientist video.
Discussion:  Immediately following the video, it’s a great idea to have a discussion of key concepts. First, identify what the students gained from the video by asking questions like: “What does the scientist do?” “What kind of project does the engineer work on?” etc. Next, identify one key concept that aligns with the design challenge. You can also click the ‘learn more’ tab next to the instructional video to find a list of key terms and descriptions presented in the video. At camp we found it helpful to have a short discussion of at least one key term, often with demonstrations and drawings.

Engineering Design Process

Now that we’re inspired and have an understanding of a key concept, we’re ready to start using the Engineering Design Process!

The first step in the Engineering Design Process is the plan. We’ve found it useful to have the students plan their design by drawing their ideas on graph paper, trying to be as technical as possible. Encourage students to use directional arrows and label important elements, and remind them that a more detailed plan generally translates to a better design in the end. Allot about fifteen to twenty minutes to plan. After everyone has designed what they hope to build now you can show them the instructional video. (Note: some designs benefit from showing the instructional video prior to planning and some don’t, use your educational expertise). There will no doubt be at least a few students that quickly start to redesign. Remember redesign is great! If it doesn’t work the first time, it means you are able to learn something new!
 So, let’s start to build! Allot as much time as possible for building. Depending on their ages, dexterity and the difficulty of their design, students will need anywhere from 45 minutes to 1.5 hour to build. Allow students to expand on the parameters of their design, to think about other ways of building and explore optional materials.
After everyone has made an initial build, it is time to start testing! Each design challenge has a testing element, as testing your design is vital to the EDP. As the educator, it is good to be aware of the testing outcomes, what might happen and to be prepared to give helpful feedback to the students (this is why it’s good to complete the activity before the course!).However, remember that the online mentors will be able to answer questions or provide suggestions as well!

Once everyone has tested their first designs, it’s time to collect our results and post on Curiosity Machine. I would suggest taking at least twenty minutes for uploading but this may depend on the amount of technology available at your site. Have students login, identify the specific activity that they completed and click the ‘start building’ button located on the ‘guide’ tab. An EDP banner will pop up, the students will start sharing their data with the Curiosity Machine world.

Just as earlier, students will first have to share their plan (which can be the drawing they made earlier). Curiosity Machine allows for students to upload photos, text, and videos. Be aware that students will love posting videos. (And it might take a few minutes to upload depending on your internet speed.) Next, they can select the ‘build/test’option from the EDP banner. Here they can upload videos or photos of their design. Encourage the students to upload videos of their design whether or not it is actually working as intended. Students should also always post a description of what they are doing. This was a bit harder to encourage during Curiosity Camp, many students felt it was okay to just post a photo or video without a description, but this left the mentors with less information to provide feedback on. I always encourage campers to write up as much information as possible. Not only does this ensure more in-depth feedback from the mentor, but it also reinforces the newly learned concepts with the students.
After the students have posted and described their plan and designs it’s time to be patient. Being a network of volunteer mentors that are often working long hours, we can’t expect all students to receive feedback in real time. During Curiosity Camp we had about a one day turnaround but this may not always be the case. (If you need speedy feedback for your program, please email [email protected]for help.)
Receiving feedbackthis is when the students get tremendously excited. The campers arrived at 9am, threw their backpacks on the shelf and ran for a computer. They would log on to Curiosity Machine and look for little flags on their submitted designs indicating that they had feedback from their mentors. This is about the time when the camp classroom would erupt in students screaming my name wanting to show me what their mentor said.
Yet, the process isn’t over just yet, the students are now at the redesign stage. They should grab their projects and start thinking about how they can improve or alter their design to make it better. Sometimes students will have directly asked concept questions to the mentors, and the mentors will answer using video or other visuals to give them a clear answer.
Remember when I mentioned that you don’t need to be a scientist or engineer to use our designs in the classroom? Well, this is why. The students usually would begin enthusiastically redesigning, rebuilding and retesting their projects. After initial changes are made, they have the chance to upload again and if they complete all the required steps in the EDP the mentor will move the student to the Reflect stage. This is a chance for the student to show off what they have gained from the activity (which will show up on the inspirational gallery) and also reflect on the key concepts they learned by answering a reflection question And there you go–you just inspired creativity, persistence and a desire to achieve through a fun engineering activity.
Some Technical TipsIf you don’t have a grasp on the technology, no problem! Here are a few suggestions to make it a little easier:
  • Make sure you understand the website. Know how a student should upload and use the interface before introducing it in the classroom or camp. This demo video will walk you through the interface. 
  • Due to online protection laws (COPPA) students under the age of 13 will need to complete a parental waiver. This will undoubtedly be easier to complete prior to the start of the program. (For camp, we included this form in the camper packets and the parents turned it in along with their medical forms.)
  • Explore the activities–some are easier than others. But also don’t be discouraged if you don’t have great results. There are more ways to do each activity than the instructional video suggests, so don’t limit the students to just one way to design. Encourage them to think about it in as many ways as possible. That’s what real engineers do every day. They try to find multiple solutions to the same problem and figure out which one works the best.
  • On the less technical side, I should mention that when working with younger students, it’s smart to write down their passwords and keep them in a safe spot to reference later.  You will without a doubt have students that forget their password, even if it is their favorite animal.
  • And yes, it might be chaotic to ask twenty youngsters to log onto a website at the same time but trust me the end result is worth the chaos!

There is no doubt in my mind that educators and any STEM based organization will find the Curiosity Machine helpful. Not only do students engage in enriching science content, participate in exciting design challenges and connect with real world scientists and engineers but they also get a chance to grow and learn from their mistakes in an inexplicitly positive way. And for us educators the Curiosity Machine is not only a way to inspire students and gather ideas but it can also be used as a way to track the changes that our students are making as the become the engineers of the future.  

Rusty works at the LA studio, and ran multiple sessions of bio-robotics camp this summer.

How to support teens in leading STEM “Curious Sessions” for Youth

This is a guest post from After School Matters, an organization we work with in Chicago. This past spring we partnered with some of their wonderful teen participants who brought the Curiosity Machine to a local library. Find out more about ASM here.

Science Innovation & Me is an After School Matters STEM pre-apprenticeship program at Erie Neighborhood House for 15 CPS high school teens. Over the Spring Cycle (January – April 2014), Michelle Barrera’s teens explored free design-thinking modules on the online portal, Curiosity Machine. The teens selected and practice four design-thinking challenges from the Curiosity Machine and then led “Curious Sessions” at the Bridgeport library branch for young children. Here’s Michelle’s story about how she integrated the Curiosity Machine and peer-to-peer teaching into her program – and how you can do it, too!

Michelle guides one of her ASM teens in using the Curiosity Machine.
A little about your fellow ASM instructor, Michelle Palomino:
Chicago native, Michelle Palomino, has been working at Erie Neighborhood House since 2007. She runs a variety of programs, such as ASM’s Science Innovation and Me, a youth council, and sports. She also coordinates a middle school program called Scientists for Tomorrow, helps youth with homework time, develops youth programming, and facilitates retreats. Michelle is currently pursuing her Masters in Education at DePaul University.
In Michelle’s words, “I love being able to engage and motivate young people to explore science. I enjoy being able to explain concepts, planning lessons, taking students on field trips, and being able to teach through hands-on activities. However, what I love the most is instilling in my students a passion for learning. My students know they are capable to researching, gathering information and creating experiments and models on any topic they are curious about, and they know this because we have done it together.”

During the spring of 2014, we integrated the Curiosity Machine into our Science Innovation & Me program. The last five weeks of the program focused completely on activities from the Curiosity Machine and preparing youth to become presenters. During the last two weeks of our program, our youth facilitated four sessions at the Richard J. Daley Library in Bridgeport. Each session was an hour and a half long. The sessions were facilitated by the youth. In small groups of 3, our teens worked at a station to help children build models and test them out. Youth selected the activities, planned out each session, practiced each activity with our school age children, gathered supplies, conducted the activities, and cleaned up after each session.
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How I prepared the teens to lead Curious Sessions for the public:
Preparing youth to deliver the sessions took about three weeks. First, youth explored the Curiosity Machine website and picked their favorite activities. This took one session to do. Once all the youth submitted their activities, they talked about them and as a group selected four activities. On average, it took youth 2-3 hours per activity. During the first session, youth worked independently and it took them about 5 hours to complete the activity. I decided it would be better if they worked in small groups of three, and as a result students were able to solve problems quicker and work faster. Youth also came in on the Saturday before the sessions began to practice the activities. Along with practicing the activities, youth also practiced their communication skills by explaining to everyone their project and the steps they took to complete it.
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On two Fridays, youth practiced the activities with children from Erie’s School Age program. By practicing, youth were able to conduct the sessions in an environment they were comfortable and familiar with, before going to the Library. Youth were also able to find out what sections of the activities worked well for children and which sections did children struggle with. Knowing how children worked through the activities was a key element in their preparation for the library. One example is the Build a Sailboat activity when teens struggled to help children cut the plastic bottles in halves. It was really stressful and time consuming for the teens. After the activity, I conducted a reflection and youth decided that for the library, we needed to have the bottles cut prior to conducting the activity.
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The importance of reflection:
Youth were able to move forward after a conversation with them on the importance of trial and error, accepting mistakes and having fun with the activities. However, this frustration and obstacles could have been avoided if we had more time. Part of the Curious Sessions allows students to upload videos of their models and the trials. These videos are then viewed by engineers who give teens feedback on their models and suggest ideas for improvement. With more time, my students could have uploaded their videos, received feedback and made improvements.
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The impact of teen-led STEM activities for the public:
Bringing the Curiosity Machine to my program was a great success. In the beginning, my teens were nervous about teaching activities and working with children. However, the teens really enjoyed working with children, they felt they made a difference by teaching, and they want to do it again. The children who attended the event were really engaged in the activities, and part of it is because the activities are fun and allow students to be creative. The parents were really grateful and expressed the need for science programs in their communities. I highly recommend instructors to incorporate the Curiosity Machine in their programs.
My advice for bringing Curiosity Machine to your program:
Instructors can incorporate the Curiosity Machine into their programs in several ways. One way will be to do what I did, and dedicate half of the semester to the Curiosity Machine, however, I suggest differently. From my experience, five or six weeks are not enough time to incorporate the Curiosity Machine in a meaningful way. My students felt rushed and pressured to get through the activities. Part of the reason is that my teens took longer to fully grasp the activities. These activities are meant for students to learn through trial and error and to be creative. However, accepting failure and the concept of “we learn through mistakes” was also difficult and frustrating for some of my teens, and this kept from continuing to try after several failures. Another reason for the frustration is that they wanted the models to be perfect, and for some of the activities this would have been almost impossible. For example, in the Making a Flat Ball activity youth had to create a sphere that rolls by using flat shapes and tape. Teens were fixated on creating a perfect rolling ball and this became an obstacle in completing the activity. For this activity, I recommend instructors to first go over the activity and all of the instructions. I did this by projecting the activity from the website onto a whiteboard. Instructors can then answer any questions that students might have about the activity and the materials that can be used. Instructors should show students pictures from that website on similar models that other students have put together. My students struggled with the activity; however, once they saw the pictures, they realized it was a lot simpler than they thought. Many of the activities have videos, and instructors should show teens these videos as well. Having a reflection after each practice was a key element for our students’ success. These reflections helped youth share ideas on their methods and help each other out before trying to build the second model. Finally, during the reflection some of the youth suggested using different materials and instructors should allow students to try different supplies. For example, during the Build a Sailboat activity, youth realized that the play dough held on better without the construction paper. Therefore, I allowed students to not use the construction paper. Trying out the activities ahead of time is really important because it allowed the students to be able to find out what works well and what can be better and how.
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Access to cameras, a computer lab, or smart phones with Internet access are necessary. Students need to be able to record a video testing their models and upload it to the website. One of the reasons the students were motivated is that they chose the activities we worked on. Finally, the partnerships are also essential in creating a successful event. Iridescent showed my students how the Curiosity Machine works, the Richard J. Daley library branch recruited participants and After School Matters provided us with the support necessary to make everything happen.