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 […]

200 girls learning how to program mobile apps – in a 2500 year old Indian city

Over the past few years, Iridescent has been growing and I dont have as much contact with participants as I did before. I miss that fuel.
But thankfully, every few weeks, some stories of people come through – that just make me stop and stare in amazement.
Like this one.
Senthil Kumar is an engineer at Qualcomm in Bangalore. His sister, Mani Mala, is an educator in Madurai, one of the oldest cities in the world (actually 2500 years old).
They learned about Technovation and took it upon themselves to bring Technovation to the young women of Madurai.
The logistics of this undertaking are what makes this story of grit so inspiring. It really brings perspective to first-world petty griping!
Some background on Madurai. It is famous primarily for its old, old, old, beautiful temples. People grow rubber and the city is known for its cultural traditions.

That is from a tourist’s point of view. But what about its youth? They aspire just as young people all over the world. And that is the story of Senthil. I did a quick interview with him trying to understand how he became so driven and motivated. Listen and be inspired!

Senthil and Mani Mala wanted to provide more opportunities to the young women in Madurai and recruited more than 200 women from two local universities to meet on the weekends and work through the Technovation curriculum.

They dont have internet, but that doesn’t stop them!
Senthil takes the night bus every Friday night from Bangalore (a 10 hour bus journey), reaches Madurai on Saturday morning. Teaches the girls. They work around the internet issue using an offline version of App Inventor. Senthil downloads the girl’s code on flash drives. He does the 10 hour night journey on Sunday night and goes straight to work on Monday.

He has been doing this for weeks. (The Technovation program lasts 12 weeks).
Their biggest need right now is for mentors who can help ease the load on Senthil and Mani and support the young women towards completion of their apps and business plans.
Imagine if these young women came to Silicon Valley to present their technology solutions for a better world!

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.

Engineers as Teachers

How many of us have pursued a career because of a passionate mentor or teacher? I personally chose engineering mainly because my father shared his love for it with me.

Children in urban schools rarely come in contact with highly motivated, intense scientists or engineers. So when you go into their classrooms you change the way they think. You prove that they too can aspire to and pursue a career in science or engineering.

This experience was a very powerful for me. I decided to devote all my energies to motivating underserved children to develop important skills, work hard and aim high.

We need to build a society that can analyze situations, think objectively and make intelligent decisions. We have to change the world ourselves!

I started Iridescent, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing the best and most exciting science experiences to underserved communities. The model is essentially to help engineers use their skills to develop interesting, hands-on science activities for children and to inspire them to pursue a career in science or engineering.

The Aerospace & Mechanical Engineering Department at USC has been a very strong champion of this program. The department offers a course for undergraduate students (AME 490) that enables them to earn 3 credits for developing and teaching hands-on science courses. Over the past year, we have had 13 students who have conducted 9 courses reaching more than 270 children and parents. (Some of the courses we conduct are for entire families!)

Each course is for ten hours and the course topics are all very unique and real-world. So far we have developed and taught courses on: Aeronautics, Biomechanics of Diving, Cardiovascular Mechanics, Heat transfer and Energy Efficient Houses, Physics of Sailing, Renewable Energy, Rockets, Science of Sporting Equipment and Structural Color.

Every instructor goes through a 16-hour, training program in which he/she learns about motivation, interest, educational psychology, inquiry-based science, lesson planning and evaluation. The instructor also learns how to make assessments for each session and ensure that the students are always learning.

This model of Engineers as Teachers is very powerful as it changes not only the school children
that are being taught, but also the instructors.

The biggest challenge is communicating complex and abstract concepts such as Reynolds number, diffraction, dual nature of light, gravity etc without using any mathematical equations or scientific terms. You have to assume zero prior knowledge (regardless of the participant’s age) and then build up block by block.

The other rewarding aspect is learning about the community and witnessing firsthand a parent’s drive to provide the best for his/her child. We have had parents work two night-shifts and come for a session first thing in the morning. Another parent drove all the way from Santa Barbara (to Los Angeles) every Wednesday night to attend the sessions. It is very inspiring and humbling to come in contact with people who may be less educated than you but may have more ambition, more drive and more determination.

The next step for us is to bring more engineers into the program. We have many more schools than we can provide courses for.

We need passionate, dedicated, visionary engineers and scientists to help inspire a new generation to solve the world’s biggest problems.

Let’s make it happen!