Iridescent
Illuminates STEM


July 2013

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Everyone understands honing skills in arts, music, and sports requires hours of practice. So does science. First you learn cause and effect, sketch ideas, follow directions, analyze, and then create new solutions. It is this approach to science as a creative process that forms the basis of Iridescent, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing science education to young people in underserved communities.

Now in its seventh year, California-based Iridescent is the brainchild of its founder and CEO Tara Chklovski, an aerospace engineer and former principal at a K-6 school in India, who believes, “Science is a much more creative process than a collection of facts like it’s taught in schools. It really is a process of making sense of the world. There is little correlation between science in formal school curriculum and the way it is in the real world.”

With a goal to bridge the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning gap and inspire girls and inner-city children to strive to become engineers and scientists, Iridescent uses a three-pronged strategy of teaching STEM through hands-on lessons, using engineering mentors, and enlisting strong parental involvement.  

Iridescent began in 2006 with one engineer and has grown into a national program with 18 staff and over 700 volunteering engineers and scientists. “The model has been successfully implemented by Iridescent in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, and New York City, reaching more than 17,000 kids, parents, and engineers,” says Chklovski.

Founder and CEO Tara Chklovski. Image: Iridescent

 

Mutual Learning

Iridescent offers a rigorous 16-week training program for volunteering engineers that enables them to directly impact the STEM pipeline by serving as role models and providing meaningful science learning experiences to local communities of underserved families. “We have partnerships with 10 universities and engineers go through a training where they learn to create four to five open-ended engineering design challenges that capture a problem an engineer faces and the children step into the engineers’ shoes and understand the problem they are trying to solve,” says Chklovski.

“The teacher is as much a recipient of knowledge as the child is,” she says. The engineers develop their public speaking and leadership skills and a deeper understanding of their own field while communicating complex concepts to diverse audiences. “Engineers and scientists gain skills to translate their passion into a language that children can understand and relate to,” she adds. In the mutual learning model, both the students and mentors benefit from “doing science” together.

Leveraging parental involvement is another key approach that Iridescent follows through its Family Science courses. Inspired quite early in her life to pursue a science career by her father (a pilot) and mother (a doctor), Chklovski believes parents play a crucial role in shaping their kids’ interests and values. “Parents are ideal science educators,” she recently wrote in a blog post.

Leveraging parental involvement is a key approach that Iridescent follows through its Family Science courses. Image: Iridescent

Parents are required to participate in Iridescent’s programs with their children. The goal is to educate and empower the parents so that they can better support and further their child’s education. “No program encourages parents as partners. Here, parents learn as much as children about bioengineering, nanotechnology, and implementing engineering design processes,” says Chklovski, emphasizing that it helps continue the learning that is initiated in the Family Science courses. Having been a participant in the program, parents can then provide relevant books, direct their children to science programs on television, and participate in additional science activities.

Engineers also willingly volunteer significant amounts of time to the Family Science courses. Chklovski remembers when they had Boeing engineers talk about satellite systems and problems with which they were wrestling. “Their challenge for children was to build a rotating device that could orbit with a certain radius and operate at a certain speed using materials found in the house," she says. "The children and parents tried several times before they got the model right, which is so true of the real world. At the end, they had a clear understanding of the problem the engineer faced.”

Online Feedback

Feedback, says Chklovski, is an essential element in learning that’s missing in schools. “We have an online portal where engineers talk about their project and problem. The child and parent can do the project at home and then upload a video and the same engineer then provides feedback,” she says. The portal Curiosity Machine has a badge system to recognize achievement at every step of the process. “The idea is you start off as a builder when you follow directions, then you progress to an engineer level where you analyze design and information, and the third level is an inventor level where you have enough expertise to come up with a new solution for the problem,” she adds.

Iridescent will continue to build its online platform and aims to have a complete set of resources for parents that will support them in doing open-ended science projects based on the fieldwork of scientists and engineers with their child for every week of their child’s life from 3-18 years. “We will have 800 projects; we have 70 right now. The vision is that parents look at an introductory video, select a project to do with their child, spend a week reading a book, complete the project, and get feedback from an engineering mentor online. It’s going to be like science as a family hobby involving everyone,” says Chklovski.

Through Iridescent’ s programs, Chklovski hopes children will inculcate an interest in STEM at a young age,  learn to be more curious for knowledge, and become more confident in inventing solutions to solve some of the world’s biggest and most pressing problems.

Science is a much more creative process than a collection of facts like it’s taught in schools. It really is a process of making sense of the world.

Tara Chklovski, founder and CEO, Iridescent

 
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