At a high level, our process consisted of a phase of research, ideation, and then two rounds of iteration through prototyping and testing.
To explore what defines a successful science classroom experience, 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.
From my research, I synthesized a few key principles crucial for developing a kit that would provide a meaningful and memorable Hacking Stem classroom experience for students.
Assembling the tools with which they will experiment provides sense of ownership, which gets students invested.
Students should have the power to explore their unique curiosities in the classroom.
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. We used dot voting to allow individuals in the studio to indicate which concepts felt especially interesting, complicated, or safe. This helped us identify three 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 to one concept, we tested video prototypes of our three concepts with a group of seven third-graders from UW KidsTeam. With these students, our main goal was to gauge interest in subject matter. We were also interested in investigating which kit idea allowed students to explore their own curiosities most effectively.
Collaborating with these students was a unique and helpful experience. They asked clever questions about our prototypes, and, with brutal honesty, uncovered aspects of the ideas that struck them as overdone or boring.
Shown below, the students had a lot of mixed and negative emotions regarding the rotation simulator, and the brain activity simulator. They gravitated toward the plant monitoring kit, and we collaboratively discussed how we could extend the project beyond what was shown in the video prototype.
The plant monitoring kit excited students! We iterated the concept to include two mint plants to increase opportunities of inquiry-led experimentation for students.
With two plants, students could manipulate one plants' environment differently than the other 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.
While testing with students helped us gauge topic interest, we turned to local teachers for advice on feasibility, as well as our kits potential role in the classroom. With a renewed vision for our kit, we built a behavioral prototype to test with five local teachers.
These tests allowed us to confirm our direction before I funneled a lot of time into developing the system using Arduino + Processing. By faking the functionality of the kit with these educators, they were better able to envision what it could be like in their classrooms and give honest feedback.
Framing the experiment through a fictional narrative would increase student engagement
Our kit built well on the 1st and 2nd grade biology and plant science curriculums
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. I was especially curious to see if assembly of the six-sensor system was too complicated, even with our instructions.
Each student wanted to analyze different aspects of the two plant system; they desired flexibility in the student workbook.
Students were eager to assemble the six sensor system, and perceived the instruction diagrams as sufficient guidance.
Kids really wanted to eat the mint plants.
In response to student feedback, we iterated our physical form to include a protective shield around the Arduino to protect from potential damage when watering. We also iterated on the student workbook to make it more flexible to each individual students' curiosities.
Lastly, we updated the end of our instruction materials to include a recipe for minty lemonade. As a class, students will celebrate the end of this project harvesting their mint to make these drinks! (+ this aligns with the Peak-End rule to create a memorable experience)
We presented our final kit concept to the Microsoft Hacking Stem team at the conclusion of our project. The Mint Challenge won Best Documentation, for the instruction materials we created for both teachers and students.
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 project 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 thrive in work that allows me to prototype and create using many methods
I feel in my element when I can leverage my technical background, communication, and storytelling skills to explore concepts with users.
This project was a highlight of my master's program because it pushed me out of my comfort zone of web and mobile, opening my eyes to the possibilities and breadth of applications for UX Design.
Balancing the needs of various stakeholders is challenging but crucial
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.