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.

Taking a look at the STEM Education landscape: Strengths of Engineering Skill-Based Volunteering and Online Programs that inform our work

A literature review is a necessary component of most publications, demonstrating familiarity with the field and key research findings while also situating your work in the broader context of that research. Understanding this aim, as we crafted a proposal for an NSF AISL grant this past winter, we decided to expand our understanding of “literature” to include programs and initiatives addressing the same issues as Iridescent’s programs. We focused on the practices of: 
  1. engaging STEM mentors (particularly professional engineers) 
  2. involving parents and families in children’s learning
  3. exploring STEM content through online platforms and services
We hoped to understand what other programs were doing to address the question of engaging underrepresented populations–to learn from and adapt their best practices–and also to understand where our work fit into this broader picture. In part, we were looking for a way to answer the question: “What makes Iridescent programs unique?”
In conducting our review, we compiled the following tables:

Strengths of Engineering Skill-Based Volunteering and Online Programs that inform our work


Family Science:

Online Learning:

Looking at this collection of programs and organizations helped us better understand what we’re doing, and what we’re aiming to do. As we set the three categories and classified programs into those categories, we began to understand the way we combine these separate aspects. We had to look back to our early days to trace the influence of San Jose’s Family Science Nights, or the over-arching influence of the philosophy behind Engineers without Borders, or the model of online-hosted curriculum Engineering is Elementary embodies…but in collecting all of these programs into tables we were able to see our work occurring at the intersection of these categories.

We looked at projects designed to offer online mentorship courses to university STEM students (the SUNY mentorship program; COSIA) and projects developed to produce online curriculum/content from STEM students and professionals for classrooms or websites (Portal to the Public, Engineering is Elementary; Using Science Academies Project), and saw similarity in our aims with our Engineers as Teachers program and the Curiosity Machine.
However, we were also able to understand the unique nature of our own program–our system of teaching engineers to communicate their research to a public, non-technical audience through structured Family Science Courses (similar to San Jose Discovery Museum Family Science and Engineering Nights, or the AASS Science Nights, but consistently, over a five week course period instead of one night, and for free), and then having that continue into families’ homes, with the Curiosity Machine (which combines the Engineering curriculum and OEEDC of other sites like EiE or DIY with one-on-one mentorship). We were able to understand how the emphasis on one-on-one mentorship for Open Ended Design Challenges of the Curiosity Machine is unique for a website, but also for engineers who seek deeper connections, wanting to reach younger learners (while being mindful of realistic time commitments). 
It was through considering the field, reviewing other programs and their practices and expertise that we were able to situate our own, and fully articulate how our chain or pipeline of programs knits together their (and our own) best practices in a unique way. In short, we had to look around to understand where we fit in.

References: Our jumping off point for this review was Change the Equation

Powered by Volunteers

Lately, I have been tallying our numbers to see what we did over the year and it has been exciting to see the graphs.
It has also been awe-inspiring. Awe-inspiring to see so many people can come together to spend hours of thought, time, effort and sweat for the good of someone in need. I have heard many end-of-the-year speeches by CEO’s and it usually sounds very cliched when they say that they alone couldn’t have done so much, etc etc. I am now on the other side and want to say the same cliched things. But I also want to stress how genuine my gratitude, humility and hope is.
Operationally, the program runs only because of our volunteers: hundreds of volunteering engineers who develop and teach the curricula, bilingual speakers who translate all our materials (some of whom have never even met us like Avril Soto and Yvette Johnson), volunteering researchers (who help us evaluate our impact like Robyn Hightower) and teachers and school administrators who volunteer their time to provide the best education for their students.
But I feel the most important thing volunteers bring to Iridescent is their belief in us. It is not easy to take on the problem of inspiring inner-city children to aim to be engineers . It is not easy to develop an innovative program that addresses a need in the community. Its even harder to run such a program on little or no money. That is when every kind word and statement of support becomes solid fuel boosting our engines. Every time we hit a wall (when we get a letter of rejection from a funding agency or talk to people with little imagination and risk-taking abilities) , some volunteer comes along and says how neat our program is and that they would like to support it with their time and effort. We would have crumpled up and died long time ago if it wasn’t for every such individual volunteer.

And so we continue – powerful and sustained.

Thank you for believing in us.