Open Letter to Iridescent Mentors

A version of this letter was shared on Iridescent’s blog and with its 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 […]

Introducing the Iridescent Awesome Award

We are proud to introduce the new Iridescent Awesome Award and our first awardee! This award recognizes the Iridescent team member who has gone above and beyond in their work over the past month, and demonstrated amazing teamwork and dedication. The first Iridescent Awesome Award is presented to Mike Larsson, our Senior Developer! Mike joined […]

What gains do children make in curiosity, creativity and persistence over 100 hours? What age can you start?

To answer these questions, we ran a 100 hour-long summer camp – looking at nature from an engineer’s point of view. We opened the camp to a wide range of ages – all the way from 3-10. Each child was paired with an adult or a high school explainer.

The main barriers for the littlest ones were motor control and verbalization of ideas. The former was addressed by having the high school explainer or adult serve as the “hands”. Over time as the little ones got used to the environment and people, they became more comfortable with expressing their ideas and goals.

We based our curriculum on the Next Generation Science Standards as well as the core principles of successful games and motivation theory:

  • a sandbox to start and explore without fear of failure
  • showing the real world and exciting applications of learning (or “why” this is important)
  • providing “just-in-time” or “on demand” knowledge, encouraging students to learn as they build, instead of making them demonstrate expertise before they build.
  • giving each student choice and ownership of their learning. Students could apply their learning to design and build models of their own choosing.

Over the course of the 100-hour camp, students experienced the following progression of skills:

25-50 hours – Gaining Observation Skills, Familiarity with Materials, Asking questions that can be investigated

  1. Notice features, patterns, or contradictions in one’s world.

For instance, instead of differentiating birds on the basis of color, students started to notice differences in wing beat frequencies, wing tip shapes, types of beak etc.


  1. Ask questions about the phenomena being observed

Why is it that millipedes move slowly, but centipedes can move fast? Why do leaves on different plants and trees have different types of edges?

  1. Becoming familiar with materials and how they behave

We use very simple, low-cost materials to lower the cost of failure. It is not a very big problem if a child breaks a few popsicle sticks while trying an idea, but the same tolerance can’t be extended if the materials or equipment are very expensive or single-use only. With practice, students learn to predict how different materials behave under varying forces, and conditions such as temperature, light, pressure, or mediums such as air, water, and oil. The most direct application of this was when the students designed and built self-ventilating animal homes using mud, sticks, leaves and water.

  1. Learn to use instruments to measure variables

Students were exposed to a wide range of both simple and exotic measuring instruments – from humble rulers and magnifying glasses to microscopes and boroscopes.

  1. Develop an investigation plan

For instance, for the cardboard automaton week, we showed the students various videos of automatons to inspire them. After the videos, we worked on drawing our own designs. At first the students thought that the project was easy and came up with very elaborate designs. Once they started executing, they realized that they needed simpler designs — and went back to the drawing board.


A surprising finding was the value of kits such as “Snap Circuits”. These type of kits usually are not at all open-ended and dont give the learner any choice. However, they were valuable for the younger students to experience early success, reinforce learning and motivate them to explore using other materials (such as squishy circuits) to build designs of their own choice.

  1. Students use diagrams, maps,drawing, photographs, 3D models as tools to elaborate on and present their ideas

We invited a scientific illustrator and artist to teach the students about picking key features and representing them in 2D. Students learned to look at a bird and represent it as a few ovals of various sizes. 


50-100 hours Being able to apply the Engineering Design Process and gaining in persistence

The biggest learning gain for students at this level of practice was being able to say, “lets try again” when something didn’t work. Most students get very frustrated when their model doesn’t work on the first try. It takes repeated reinforcement of the message – “Its ok! Lets try again. Now what should we change this time to try and make it work?” to develop persistence.

  1. Make and use a model to test a design and to compare the effectiveness of different solutions

  2. Students persist through failing designs and models
  3. Students compare designs through repeated testing, troubleshooting, recording and analyzing results and finally identifying the best.

Students went through all stages of the engineering design process each day while exploring different questions regarding bird flight, beaks, animal locomotion, tree stability and structures etc.

  1. After repeated development and testing, students invent a totally new design based on the characteristics of the best design.

The summer camp provided 100 contact hours to students who came for the full 4 weeks.  Due to the young age and lack of similar, prior experiences, the students didn’t get to the Inventor stage. Based on the programs we run at our studios in NYC and LA, we have seen that it takes ~500-700 hours of practice for students to be completely familiar with observing, framing the right investigation questions and persisting through the engineering design process to get to the Inventor level.

Learning pains while developing science education apps

An engineering design problem
We are a science education nonprofit and work with engineers and scientists to convey complex physics-based concepts to children through open-ended engineering design problems. We dove into the nascent field of science education apps because of the overwhelming evidence that mobile devices are going to become mainstream educational devices (see Horizon Report).

The field is new and exciting, but it is not easy to develop an engaging educational app that teaches the user something new each time. So we have had to repeatedly question why we are in this field and what unique perspective we can provide. After developing five apps we finally have a better understanding of what we can provide.

  • We have a good understanding of developing open-ended engineering design problems that draw children in and hook them as tinkerers. The virtual world presents a no-mess, quick-reward approach to tinkering. The user can rapidly create many prototypes (without having to get out of her chair), test them and leave no mess.
  • We have some experience explaining complex concepts simply to children.
  • We work primarily with upper elementary and middle school students and can expand the app market that targets that age range
  • Apps provide a cost-effective way in which we can increase our impact. We spend a huge amount of resources on our in-person programs and they only reach a few thousand children and parents each year. Through apps we can reach hundreds of thousands of children and provide them with meaningful experiences that help deepen their conceptual understanding of physics.

Our main learning objective therefore is to develop games that focus on conceptual learning through experience rather than factual learning, providing both a better game and a better learning experience. We only illustrate specific concepts and topics that lend themselves to the virtual world. For instance topics such as nanotechnology, planetary movement, bacterial locomotion, fluid dynamics or the engineering constraints of building a submarine naturally lend themselves to the virtual environment, where the user can zoom around molecules, see gravity fields and air and develop an intuition for how invisible forces work.

Lessons from each of our apps
We have developed five apps so far and are in the process of releasing five more this year. Each app has been a huge learning experience.



We created this app in partnership with Gamedesk. Our vision for this app was for it to be able to show air flow around a bird’s wing (to help teach how lift works) and then to enable the user to create their own bird and see why each was successful or unsuccessful because of the amount of lift generated on the wing. Due to time constraints, we cut out the latter part. The result was Aero which provides an insight into the air flow around a wing and the resultant lift forces. But there is no game element that: 1)would make the app fun; 2)encourage the user to transfer her learning. As a result many subtle aspects of lift generation are probably missed by the casual observer.

Build a Bird (iOS, Android)

We then worked with I-site to release a second app that would show the marvelous adaptations of birds to various environments and hopefully have a more engaging game play aspect. But again due to time constraints, we had to cut back on the game play. However the artwork in this app is stunning (created by an extremely talented science illustrator – Ioana Urma) and that goes a long way towards making this app notable. This app was featured by Apple and as a result got about 64000 downloads. Here are some blog posts about the app that give us hope that we are on the right track:



This is our most recent and most exciting app developed in partnership with Night and Day Studios! It is much more complex than the others and targets upper elementary and middle school students. It is based on the work of an amazing illustrator – John Kelly – in the book The Robot Zoo – a mechanical guide to the way animals work. The book is now sadly out of print. We decided to bring some of the animals in this book to life through an app. Our physicist on our team developed the story line: It is the grand opening of the Underwater Biobot Zoo – a collection of mechanical animal robots created by a scientist – when a catastrophe strikes: an earthquake damages the underwater museum and visitors get stuck. You happen to be trapped in the scientist’s lab. The user has to study the database of the scientist records and design an underwater rescue robot to save the visitors. So the app has three parts – the database, builder (where you choose the propulsion system, energy source, respiration, digestion and camouflage type) and the navigator (where you get to rescue the visitors stuck in a yellow submarine).
Due to financial constraints, we had to limit the scope of our vision and so the story really doesn’t get developed too well. In execution the learning pieces stand apart from the gaming experience. This is easy to see while playing the game, but was totally not apparent to us while we were developing the app.

Clean Marine

This was developed in partnership with Desktop Aero. The user has to design an underwater glider that can pick up trash and clean the bay. This app is targeted towards nerdy middle and high school students who spend their time tinkering and thinking about design problems. This group is probably very small! It has a lot of physics and engineering design, but the concepts are complex and need some more engaging game play to inspire the required persistence.

Current field of science education apps

According to the iLearn II report toddler apps are the most popular education apps in the Apple marketplace (58%), followed by apps for adults (40%). Elementary school apps are only 19% of the educational apps, followed by 18% of middle school apps. High school is the least popular age category (10%).
As a mother of a two year old I can make some surmises as to why toddler apps are so popular:

  • toddlers need a lot of attention and supervision and educational apps seems to be a “low-guilt” way of keeping them busy. And hopefully they are learning something!
  • it is relatively easy to develop an app to keep a toddler’s attention – put some bright cartoonish pictures of animals, add animal sounds, put in some letters, numbers and music and have a simple matching game to ride on top of it all – and you have a toddler app.

Currently science educational apps barely scratch the surface of what is possible with a smart-touch device. They are weak enhancements to the content in a book and are mostly focused on presenting factual information. The only exceptions are apps not specifically designed for educational purposes, but involve manipulating partially realistic models of physics in achieving non-educational goals. For example, Anodia incorporates gravity wells in a traditional block breaker game and Osmos uses the concepts of momentum and gravity in moving bubbles of water around. Even Angry Birds contains some useful simulations of projectile motion. Notice that these games do not present facts, but allows a user to gain an intuitive feel for how a complex system operates through direct experience. This is a guiding principle behind how we design engaging hand-on activities, and is also the component that makes any game, educational or otherwise, enjoyable (Gee, J.P., 2005).

Development challenges, lessons and next steps
Like any engineering design problem, we had to balance our wish list with time, funding and expertise constraints. Developing an engaging game that looks beautiful and supports learning requires a team that has the scientific, app development, teaching, aesthetic and UI design expertise.
The hardest piece for us has been to understand how to have both an engaging game and an educational tool. After five apps, we finally have an understanding of how we should go forward i.e develop games that focus on conceptual learning through experience rather than present factual learning in one module followed by the game play in another module.
We also need to build iteratively in smaller chunks of time and money. It is not wise to spend the entire budget on one version without extensive user feedback. We also need to limit ourselves to having one clear learning objective and an engaging game play aspect that keeps reinforcing it.

What lies ahead
We are currently working on:

  • a new version of Build a Bird where the user can actually “build a bird” and vary parameters such as wing span, weight, flight speed, beak type etc to suit a particular environment. Through the process the user will have an opportunity to transfer her learning to a design problem, thereby building a deeper understanding of the underlying concepts.
  • an app on high Reynolds number fluid flow in partnership with Robot Super Brain.
  • two apps that were conceptualized by high school students and are based on science exhibits at the New York Hall of Science. The goal of these apps is to deepen and enhance the learning experience of the visitors to the science center.

Our final frontiers are to:

  • address the App Gap – The iLearn II report states that 38% of low income parents dont know what an app is. We work primarily with low income communities who need a lot of support learning how to access the internet, using keyboards, smart phones etc. We plan on making these apps a regular part of our in-person programs and documenting the learning/training process as well as the impact to further inform the field.
  • research the long-term effect (if any) of these virtual learning experiences on the behavior and attitudes of users. Does tinkering in the virtual world translate into tinkering in the real world?

Regardless of all the learning pains, the science education app field is a very exciting one with much unexplored potential. We are very excited to collaborate with educators, scientists, developers and artists and develop powerful learning tools that unlock the wonders of our world for children. We welcome thoughts, comments and suggestions!

Each of these apps has been made possible by the generous support of the Office of Naval Research.
ReferencesGee. J. P. (2005). “Learning by Design: good video games as learning machines”. E-Learning, Volume 2 (Number 1), p. 5-16

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 🙂

Iridescent – the name

Everyone asks me why did I choose the name Iridescent! So here is the answer 🙂

Iridescent means something rainbow colored, lustrous, beautiful! I believe that when you understand a particular concept, you begin to see its manifestations everywhere. So for instance, if you learn how to observe light and shadows, you suddenly begin to see the world in 3D. Or if you learn about how a bird takes in its wings in an upstroke and fans them out in a downstroke, you then see the same mechanisms in swimmers, turtles and other biomechanical forms of movement.

So the world becomes very interesting, beautiful and multi-colored. It becomes Iridescent 🙂
My husband Tim came up with the name one morning after we had biked and had spent a good 3-4 hours listing names! The sad part is that only 20 people can spell it!

And the airplane in our logo comes from this airplane that one of our first students designed and flew!