“Gravity” trailer via YouTube
Gravity, a new adventure movie about the perils of space exploration starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, is sharing some of its star power with a blended informal STEM-based learning program for kids. USC grad student Tara Chklovski founded Iridescent in 2006. It’s reached over 22,000 young people ages kindergarten and up with a combination of family science programs, delivered in New York and LA, and through partners in Chicago and the Bay Area. They have recently launched a website, the Curiosity Machine, where students can respond to challenges and get help online from dozens of professional mentors from the science and engineering worlds. “The idea was to engage kids in STEM in a way that schools don’t do, by dealing with open-ended problems,” says Kevin Miklasz, director of digital learning at Iridescent. “Instead of lesson plans, we offer design challenges that are prompts for kids to solve complex problems with their own solutions.”
In the past Iridescent has partnered with the TV show Top Chef. For the Gravity-tie in design challenge, they asked participants to build a “space themed Rube Goldberg Machine” that performed some of the actions of a rocket launch, including 1) a launcher, 2) a transfer mechanism, and 3) an orbit well. The contest was judged by a panel of expert astrophysicists.
The first and second runner-ups were 14 and 16-year-old boys, but the winner was 13-year-old Eiley Hartzell-Jordan from Carrboro, North Carolina, who received mentoring online from Bonnie Lei, a Harvard biology student. She flew to New York City with her family to attend the movie premiere.
Iridescent is a near-perfect example of what Janet Coffey, at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, calls the promise of informal STEM-based learning. “A lot of the really rich experiences that get kids excited about pursuing science happen outside of school,” she says, naming settings like museums, libraries, summer camps, afterschool programs, clubs, Makerspaces and independent hobbies. “There’s an increasing awareness that factors like interest, motivation, and choice matter a lot for achievement and persistence [in academic subjects] and might even matter more than some of the cognitive things. Kids need opportunities to spark curiosity about science.” Her organization is investing resources in research that identifies the major emotional and social qualities that spur science learning, like self-confidence, a sense of belonging in a science-focused community, interest, motivation, and a fundamental belief in the importance of science.
Media, Miklasz says, may have its own role to play in spurring these kinds of experiences.
“Media can be an extremely subtle, nuanced, powerful way of reinforcing or dispelling stereotypes about scientists,” he says. “Portraying Sandra Bullock as a female scientist who is thinking hard and solving problems step by step–I’ve been really personally interested in how those impacts play out in kids’ perceptions.”