At a high level, our process consisted of a phase of research, ideation, and then two rounds of iteration through prototyping and testing.
We set out with a question: what makes a modern science classroom experience impactful for students? Also important, what makes a classroom experience successful in the eyes of teachers and administrators?
To investigate the answer, I first familiarized myself with the existing suite of Microsoft Hacking Stem Lesson Plans. I also explored Youtube channels and subreddits related to science experiments for kids as well as research happening in MIT Media Lab's Lifelong Kindergarten aiming to redefine creative learning. I synthesized my learnings into key observations that I used as grounding principles for ideation.
Students should feel empowered to pursue their personal curiosities.
Assembling the tools with which they will experiment provides sense of ownership.
The topic at hand must be framed in an exciting way that inspires student engagement.
In response to our formative research, we ideated a collection of concepts that each aligned to a different NGSS standard. We sketched what these concepts might look like and described how they would be used by students.
We took our collection of ideated concepts to our Microsoft sponsor and the MHCI+D studio for feedback. Using a color-coded system of stickers, individuals could indicate whether they thought concepts were especially interesting and novel, successfully placed students as the driving leaders of experimentation, or too complicated to assemble.
After this session of outside critique, we had three concepts left as clear front-runners.
Brain Activity Simulator
A kit exploring how different parts of the brain activate for different types of work
Plant Monitoring Kit
A kit concept that helps third graders understand what plants need to thrive
Earth Rotation Simulator
An activity that teaches Earth's relationship to the sun and how that affects seasons
To help further narrow down to one concept, we took our ideas to potential users. We showed a group of seven third-graders video prototypes of our three concepts and let them interact with the props used in them before probing about their impressions.
I was curious which of our concepts aligned with the key observations regarding impactful science class experiments outlined earlier. Were the kids excited about the topics? Did the assembly of the experiments seem feasible? Did students feel they could explore their own curiosities with these projects?
The (brutally honest) students asked extremely clever questions about our prototypes, uncovering flaws and aspects of the ideas that were too abstract or boring. They also helped us to realize that we'd collectively made incorrect assumptions about the interests and knowledge level of third graders with the brain simulator and rotation simulator.
In response to the student feedback, we realized that our plant monitoring kit concept had the most potential for inquiry-led experimentation and presented a topic area that excited students while not posing too many abstractions.
It was also clear that the kit concept needed iteration before prototyping - as it was presented in the video, it didn't provide much room for creative experimentation.
Before diving into prototyping, we discussed how the kit experience could promote inquiry-led experimentation for students to answer the question "what impacts plant growth over time?" Our Microsoft sponsor explained that providing an element of comparison in our experiment could help facilitate this, so we decided to iterate to a concept including two mint plants.
Using this system, students could manipulate each of their plants' environments differently and observe the impacts of their choices on plant growth. Additionally, attaching light, moisture, and temperature sensors to the plants and visualizing that data on a dashboard could provide a richer means for observation and analysis.
With a renewed vision for our kit, we built a behavioral prototype to explore it's look and feel, as well as its potential role in the classroom prior to beginning technical implementation. Using this prototype, we designed Wizard of Oz testing sessions to conduct with local teachers so that we could get feedback from teachers early on in our prototyping activities.
Framing the experiment through a narrative would increase student engagement
Our kit built well on the 1st and 2nd grade science curriculum on biology and plant topics
We needed to clarify the labels on our dashboard UI and readability could be improved through layout and use of color
This feedback from teachers provided us a clear path forward into technical implementation and creation of supportive written materials. We began many activities in parallel: development, creation of our instructions and lesson plan, and explorations of physical form.
In light of our testing feedback, we iterated on our original dashboard UI to improve readability. We also clarified the language surrounding the axes labels to increase interpretability of the historical sensor data graphs.
Hacking Stem kits come with pre-written code. The expectation is that students need to assemble their sensors and Arduino, and the codebase will do the rest. This project format keeps assembly as a core priority in the user's experience, which provides an increased sense of ownership and investment.
I took lead with all physical computing efforts as well as writing our team's codebase using Arduino and Processing. Understanding that a third-grade user would have to carry out the assembly of their sensors and Arduino, I had to carefully consider the sequence of steps to ensure the smoothest user experience.
We brought back a fully functioning prototype of our system including instruction materials and a paired student workbook to test with the same student users.
Each student wanted to analyze different aspects of the two plant system, so they desired flexibility in the student workbook.
Students were eager to take on the assembly of the six sensor set up, and perceived the instruction diagrams as sufficient guidance.
Kids wanted to eat the mint plants... Really badly?
The feedback we received from students helped us further improve the end-to-end experience of The Mint Challenge classroom kit. We iterated our physical form to include a protective shield around the Arduino in case students weren't careful when watering the plants. We also iterated the student workbook to be more flexible and personal toward individual students' curiosities.
To provide an experience users will remember fondly, we also needed to intentionally design its conclusion. The Peak-End rule explains that when humans remember experiences, they most often recall points of extreme emotion as well as the end of the experience.
Our testing revealed that the kids really wanted to eat the mint leaves. So, at the end of our instruction materials, we provided a recipe for minty lemonade. As a class, students will celebrate the end of this project harvesting their mint to make these drinks!
We presented our final kit concept to the Microsoft Hacking Stem team and other members of Microsoft Education at the conclusion of our project. The Mint Challenge won an award for Best Documentation, referring to our instruction materials created for both teachers and students.
While presenting at Microsoft, we were often asked where we would continue our efforts on improving The Mint Challenge if we had more time. We outlined two key areas for future work.
Pilot The Mint Challenge in a real classroom environment over a three week period
Since our kit would exist in a classroom environment for at least three weeks, it would've been especially valuable to test the experience with students over a similar timeframe.
Try to bring more interactivity to the data visualization dashboard
With more time, I would've liked to explore a more interactive approach to the dashboard where students could adjust the axes of the graphed data as well as integrate the workbook check-ins into the digital platform. It would be interesting to see how these changes could impact the student experience.
This was one of my favorite projects to date. It solidified my passion for designing in the realm of education and learning. I personally discovered my passion for STEM around third grade, so I found it especially rewarding to spend time thinking about how to empower students to explore these topics.
I'm a maker!
The process of iteratively prototyping and testing with users was a blast for me. I feel in my element when I can leverage my technical background, writing, and storytelling skills to extract insights from users.
Balancing the needs of various stakeholders is challenging but crucial for designing impactful end-to-end experiences
At times it was a challenge to balance the needs of teachers, students, and Microsoft in the creation of our classroom kit.
Including multiple rounds of testing was essential in making sure our materials supported each stakeholders' needs and ultimately provided a memorable experience for students.