The Mint Challenge
A Microsoft Hacking Stem plant-monitoring kit that allows third graders to explore what impacts plant growth over time through data.
WeCare
Helping networks of caregivers manage their loved ones medications with confidence.
The design challenge
Design a project-based classroom activity that helps students visualize data across STEM curriculum for the Hacking Stem Library.
Microsoft Hacking Stem challenged us to contribute a kit and lesson plan design to their Activity Library. Our classroom kits had a few requirements:
•  Each kit must be less than $10 to create
•  Codebase for visualization should be created with Arduino + Processing
•  Lesson content should align to Next Generation Science Standards

Our Kit: The Mint Challenge

What's Included?

•  Mint plants (x2)
•  Arduino microcontroller (x1)
•  Light, soil moisture, temp sensors (x6)
•  Pre-written codebase that
visualizes sensor data
•  Instruction Materials
•  Student Workbook
A hands-on plant monitoring kit for third graders aimed at helping students explore what impacts plant growth over time.
This plant monitor is assembled using two mint plants, inexpensive sensors, and a pre-written codebase that turns sensor values into a data visualization dashboard.

Using a workbook, students can track observations in the physical and digital system over 3 weeks, hypothesizing ways to improve mint plant growth in community gardens.
microsoft expo AWARD
Best Documentation

How we got here

At a high level, our process consisted of a phase of research, ideation, and then two rounds of iteration through prototyping and testing.

Secondary research

Understanding the Science Classroom

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.

mitchel Resnick, MIT's Lifelong kindergarten lab

"I believe that the best way to help people understand the world is to provide them with opportunities to actively explore, experiment, and express themselves."

synthesis

Key Components for Lasting Impact

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.

Ownership

Assembling the tools with which they will experiment provides sense of ownership, which gets students invested.

Curiosity

Students should have the power to explore their unique curiosities in the classroom.

Engagement

The topic at hand must be framed in an exciting way that inspires student engagement.

Ideation

Brainstorming 10 Concepts

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.

Narrowing based on Feedback

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

participatory design

Discussing Concepts with Students

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.

My video prototype for the Plant Monitoring kit concept

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.

Whiteboard notes of our feedback from students. A was the Brain Simulator, B was the Earth Rotation Simulator
chosen concept

Improving the Plant Monitoring Kit

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.

prototyping & testing

Wizard of Oz

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.

Our behavioral prototype, which we used in Wizard of Oz testing
Session outline for our Wizard of Oz tests with Teachers
Video summarizing our learnings from these tests with 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.

1st round of Testing  

Learnings from Teachers

TAKEAWAY 1

Framing the experiment through a fictional narrative would increase student engagement

TAKEAWAY 2

Our kit built well on the 1st and 2nd grade biology and plant science curriculums

TAKEAWAY 3

The long-term nature of our activity could inspire deeper personal investment and give students a better idea of how scientists conduct research

TAKEAWAY 4

We needed to clarify the labels on our dashboard UI and readability could be improved through layout and use of color

OUR DESIRED OUTCOME

To empower caregiving networks to share, access, and manage medicinal information together.

Ideation

Brainstorming 90 Ideas

We each proposed around thirty concepts using design methods including 2x2's and Crazy 8's. We met with a Premera rep to discuss the viability and desirability of these concepts which helped us narrow to our twenty best candidates.

prototyping & Testing  

More Making

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.

user interface

Iterating on the Dashboard

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.

Development

Bringing the Kit to Life

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.

Communication Across stakeholders

Cohesive Instructions

Photo of our fully functioning kit
testing

Seeking Feedback from Students Again

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.

testing synthesis

Learnings from Students, Part 2

TAKEAWAY 1

Each student wanted to analyze different aspects of the two plant system; they desired flexibility in the student workbook.

TAKEAWAY 2

Students were eager to assemble the six sensor system, and perceived the instruction diagrams as sufficient guidance.

TAKEAWAY 3

Watering the plants posed the threat of getting the Arduino microcontroller wet!

TAKEAWAY 4

Kids really wanted to eat the mint plants.

iterating based on feedback

Improving The Kit Experience

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.

Left: Arduino water shield. Right: a look at our iterated student workbook which facilitates observation sessions

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)

wrapping up

Presenting at Microsoft

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.

Next Steps

step 1

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.

Step 2

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.

Reflections

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.

Takeaway 2

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.

Takeaway 1

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.