Sandra Bullock and Science Role Models

“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.

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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.”  



The five most important ed-tech trends at SXSWedu


I’ve been on the ground in Austin for the South By Southwest Education Conference & Festival for 22 hours. In that time, I’ve interviewed six people, chatted with many more, and hit the Java Jive in the Hilton four times. Here’s what I see as the biggest trends coming out of the conference.

  1. Data and analytics. There seems to be a consensus, which Bill Gates will no doubt highlight in his keynote tomorrow, that the most important potential—as yet unrealized—contribution of technology to teaching and learning is the ability to extract meaningful insights from the myriad information that students generate as they travel through life on their learning journeys: diagnostics, individualized goals and plans, demographic information, performance evaluations, and on and on from cradle to mortarboard. Companies like InBloom and Engrade envision a teacher working like a doctor, synthesizing reams of test results and other information with the help of tech tools to arrive at the proper intervention for the proper moment.
  2. Games and adaptive learning. What makes video games fun is that they get harder as you get better at them, keeping you in the right “proximal zone” between bored and frustrated. “In the gaming world, when you don’t get the right outcome, you don’t feel like a failure, you say how do I adjust,” says Dreambox CEO Jessie Woolley-Wilson. This is what is meant, at its simplest, by adaptive learning. Game-like learning platforms range from Dreambox, a math program that “puts the learning in front,” in the words of Woolley-Wilson, to Kuato Studios, which later this month is debuting a fighting-robot coding game made by designers who worked on Call of Duty. Games and adaptive learning are intimately related to #1, data and analytics. In some sense, what defines a game is simply that the players are keeping score, so a key feature of online learning games is the constant generation of data that can, in theory, be used by teachers and parents in coaching mode to help direct students. Taken together, #1 and #2 form the megatrend/buzzword of “personalization”—the “mass customization” of learning.
  3. MOOCs. While many in the education space might be sick of hearing about Massively Open Online Courses, Coursera, edX, et al, they are still adding users and shaping the public imagination about what’s possible when classrooms open a window on the world.
  4. Makers and creativity. I was pleasantly surprised to see a Makerspace onsite at the convention center, where you could drop in and play with Legos, circuits and homemade play-doh. This hands-on, amateur, DIY stuff taps into a deep need for learners to accent what is most fully human, even as we are increasingly overwhelmed by virtual worlds. In addition, John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, hosted an influential panel on STEM to STEAM—putting the arts into STEM education. He’s argued that the forward march of technology will lead to a higher premium being placed on the personal, well-designed and handmade.
  5. Going back to the classroom. “Where are the districts?” “Where are the teachers?” Aside from a few leaders of charter schools I’ve run into, most of whom were presenting, my impression is that there are few full-time educators here, let alone people who make IT purchasing decisions for school districts. Many sense a fundamental disconnect on both sides between the innovation conversation going on here and the real needs of teachers in classrooms. Hopefully that will change soon.