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.