Persevering Through the Unknown: My Conversation on Emotion AI and Problem Solving with Emily Mower Provost

Tara Chklovski: What inspires you? Emily Mower Provost: The idea that we can use technology to understand people. Technology gives us new ways to learn about how humans communicate. It allows us to tackle the unknown. Advances in technology allow us to focus on problems that were previously deemed too difficult to handle. For example, […]

Preparing children for the 21st century workforce

By Katy Santa Maria Families sat quietly in the cafeteria, awaiting instructions. They were unsure of what to expect. When Curiosity Machine Family Science sessions began at Los Angeles’ 10th and 20th Street Elementary Schools in the Spring, it was up to University of Southern California engineering students, along with parent leaders, to build the […]

A 4-stage model for training engineers and scientists to help bridge the gap between home and school

Children spend the majority of their waking hours (80%) each year outside of school (cite), yet the emphasis on education is placed primarily on teachers and school, leaving the rich resources of parents and home learning unaddressed. Knowing this, we work with parents and mentors so they can provide opportunities for their children to practice and master problem-solving skills over the course of many years through many hours of practice, but we also work with teachers to bridge the gap between home and school, and to provide a consistent message to children from primary influencers.

As we’ve described previously, we’re focused on bringing our programs to scale through the use of technology, but don’t view technology as a substitution for in-person interaction. We want to use technology to support people’s interactions with one another, and have integrated technology as one element of our 4-stage model. 

Key Elements of our Model:

1. We provide a rigorous science communication training to scientists and engineers, training them to explain the science behind their work directly to the public (or as one participant put it, explaining it to a fourth-grader). This is done by having the scientists and engineers design original, high-quality hands-on projects that they teach directly to students and parents in their local communities, providing widespread technical education.

2. The projects the scientists and engineers develop are all open-ended engineering design challenges. These challenges are designed to have “low walls and high ceilings”—to be easily accessible while also lending themselves to endless and increasingly complex iterations. The challenges are intended to help students develop their creativity, innovation, problem solving skills and persistence—skills of critical importance for the next generation of STEM innovators. 


3. We train parents so that they are informed and connected to what their child is learning. The parents are able to continue providing similar learning experiences at home (well supported by resources). Following a similar train of thought, we also train partners like libraries, after-school organizations and teachers to use our challenges, taking care to connect school and out-of-school environments. 

4. Finally, we publish the challenges the scientists and engineers have developed both online through the Curiosity Machine, and through print with our Making Machines book series. Curiosity Machine users are supported by professional scientists and engineers who volunteer (and are trained) as mentors, providing sustained virtual feedback on each project. This role also offers scientists and engineers we had trained to develop challenges and share them at Family Science courses to continue mentoring students, although in a less time-intensive way.

From Pre-K through 5th grade, we mainly focus on parents—as they spend so much time with their children compared to teachers. We host family science to involve parents with the learning process, engage them, and encourage them to continue to explore and build with their children at home. By middle school, we expand our focus to include teachers and afterschool program facilitators, engaging them and training them to use our online curriculum and technology tools in and out of classrooms. However, our main focus is on our mentors, and we emphasize the science communication training, in our four-stage model as laid out here, and in putting that model into practice. Technology can never be a substitute for in-person interaction, which is why we train our mentors so extensively, and work to make our virtual mentor feedback as personal, individualized and sustained as possible. As we scale, we understand technology’s role as one of support for people’s in-person interactions with one another, and have integrated it as one part of our model, bolstered by one-on-one virtual mentorship.

Iridescent Five Up! – video series following our family science participants

After three years of applying for the National Science Foundation (NSF) Informal Science Education grant, we finally were awarded the grant to work with the same group of Family Science Participants for five years. We are now in year two of the project called, “Be a Scientist”.

There are some really cool aspects of this project, one of which I will share here.

I was inspired by the Seven Up! documentary series and we are going to create something similar with the families who participate in our Family Science Courses. The following videos are from the first year of the project and the students are all first graders. We hope to bring four more each year as these students go through elementary school.

The videos have been created by Prof. Jed Dannenbaum, Prof. Doe Mayer and their amazing students – Alejandro, Jessie and Josie from the USC Cinema School.

Some points to keep in mind and notice:
* we are targeting parents with this video. The technical content has intentionally been downplayed. We emphasize the fact that anyone can help their child learn and do science – regardless of background or prior attributes. These videos will be played at various Back to School night recruiting events to help parents see the value of engaging in learning activities alongside their children.
* Success for Iridescent is when the parent continues the learning that we initiated in the classroom. This is what we see in the Medina Family video. Parents are the biggest influencers in a child’s life. Our strategy is to exponentially increase our program’s impact by bringing the parents along with us on our mission.
* Success for Iridescent is also when the parent supports and encourages the child to persist through failure as Knick’s mother does when he despairs.

We are so excited to start creating the series for year two. We would also love any ideas and suggestions on themes or story lines to explore 🙂

We all need approval and validation

I have developed a pretty thick skin (or so I like to think), but am still vulnerable when people appreciate our work 🙂
We recently interviewed a parent who had participated in two of our Family Science Courses. Here are some excerpts from the interview.

The family couldn’t attend the first session of our CardioVascular Mechanics course and the mom told me that her daughter was so disappointed that she cried!

Getting the Family Science Program off the ground has been such a battle. I got the idea in 2006 after reading an article about the Open Classroom in Salt Lake City Utah and then kept trying to implement it with little success in various schools. We would get 2 parents, sometimes 1 at the sessions and our brave volunteering engineers would continue teaching to the one student and one parent. Sessions at Shenandoah and Trinity were total failures. Many people told me that the model wouldn’t work in an urban setting, especially with some of the more jaded LAUSD schools.
But I kept repeating to myself that you have to give everything a second chance. Change a couple of things and try again. And things usually got better the second time around.
We have now done 4 successful Family Science Courses at Shenandoah and 2 at Trinity with attendance between 60-70 people.
We also have some basic formulas down that help us go to new schools and run a pretty solid program. The formula seems simple now, but I guess its not that simple, otherwise the journey would have been much quicker and less interesting.
We even replicated the program up in the Salinas/Pajaro area with the help of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We weren’t there at any of the sessions, but the model is sufficiently robust that it can take replication. The little town was so happy with the sessions that they got the local TV station and newspaper to cover it 🙂

It is an interesting lesson overall, sort of like what Gladwell’s book Outliers talks about as well. It takes a lot of time and a lot of hard work to achieve any kind of success. It is about being intelligent and having staying power. It does take about 2-3 years before you start seeing any results and then maybe another 2-3 before you start getting known for what you do.

Family Science – what works!

I read about a really interesting school called the Open Classroom in Salt Lake City, Utah where parents are required to volunteer 3 hours per child per week. Many schools all over require this parental involvement, but rarely are the parents required to help teach, develop lesson plans and lead small group discussions and learning. I was intrigued by the idea and as almost every LAUSD school has a parent center and a parent coordinator on the federal payroll, I decided to take advantage of this and see if parents could be more meaningfully involved in their child’s education. That is how the concept of Family Science Courses came about.

The goal was to have Family Science Sessions at night (not just one night as most schools do), but a whole series of 5 or more (depending on the topic). The courses would be taught by engineers and would have an interesting overarching story such as cardiovascular mechanics, structural color, animal locomotion, sports science etc.
The audience is elementary and middle school Latino and African American children AND their parents. Both the children and parents conduct experiments and learn science together. Our biggest challenge was parent recruitment and after 12 Family Science Courses we are beginning to develop a formula that ensures strong parental participation (~25-30 families).

So here is our secret checklist 🙂

1. Present a short video showing parents and children doing science together from previous sessions. We have been presenting this video at Back to School Night so that a large audience sees the information. They are then more likely to remember us and make the connections when we send the parent invitation letter back home.

2. Ask the parents! If you have any questions, just ask! So we decided to do that and surveyed parents at 6 different schools (charter, magnet and regular).

3. Show videos and pictures about the topic to all the students (from a particular grade) – so that they have a better understanding of what will be taught and how cool it is 🙂

4. Hand out flyers and parent invitation letters to the students so that they can
RSVP back. One surprising tactic that worked very well this fall was to have single-sex courses.

We had been awarded an AAUW grant to conduct sessions for only girls and their parents and surprisingly the turnout was very strong. I think it was mostly due to the fact that we presented only to the girls (and that had never happened at the two schools before) and the girls were quivering with excitement to have been specially chosen for this program (over the boys).

5. Make reminder phone calls. Initially I was paying a few bilingual undergraduates to make weekly calls to the parents, but my main problem with that was that it wasn’t scalable. Now, we have high school interns (who facilitate during the sessions) make just one initial phone call. Once the parents come, they are hooked and need no reminding.

We used all five steps this fall and the sessions were a resounding success. We conducted two courses on Animal Locomotion at Trinity and Shenandoah and one on Sports Science at Foshay.

Here is a video from the session on viscosity. Participants learned how bacteria and copepods move using “sticks and strings”. They then had to design their own copepods to see which design would sink the slowest in karo syrup.

This video shows the participants learning about thrust by designing balloon cars.

Stay tuned for our next post on measurements of change in content knowledge and interest. Get excited (as Kara says)!