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.

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.