Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Gravity Ether Educator Resource Packet

It’s here! We’ve spent the past few months working with Institute of Play to develop and refine a tool for educators using the Gravity Ether in their classes or programs, and we’re thrilled to finally be able to share it with you. The Gravity Ether Educator Resource Packet is free to download, and includes relevant information about the game, the physics concepts that it explores, and suggestions for ways to incorporate it into learning environments. We talk about how the Gravity Ether makes use of implicit learning theory and share some of our ideas on how to make the most of this--we’ve even included some lesson plans as a starting point for educators to make their own lessons.

You can download the packet by clicking here, or by visiting the Gravity Ether page (where you can also download the game for mac or pc). Take a look and let us know what you think in the comments!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Homemade device to record your iPad with your iPhone using popsicle sticks and rubber bands

So at Iridescent, we like to live what we preach. We don't just ask kids to make things from scratch, we do it too. Recently I decided that I needed a device to record myself playing games on my iPad (for a separate project to be talked about later). I had done this once before using my iPhone stacked up on a bunch of books and it worked reasonably well. So I decided I wanted the device to hold my iPhone in a position where it could record my iPad. But I also wanted to record myself consistently over the course of a year, so that each time I set it up, it recorded the same way, which meant I needed something better than the stacks-of-books method. It also had to be minimally intrusive in preventing me from using the iPad.

As I thought about this, I realized I had a well-defined design challenge that I needed to solve. Which meant to make things more fun, I decided to use the rule in we use in all of our design challenges: use only low-cost materials.

Additionally, I was always impressed with a Leonardo Da Vinci segment that Bobby Zacharias used in our Be an Inventor program in spring 2012. In the first weeks of that program, students had to design some kind of invention using only the tools and technology available to Leonardo. This meant no glue or machine screws could be used to make connections--things had to be lashed together or connected by pin joints. I always thought that sounded fun, so I decided to put the same constraint on my device.

So, where did that leave me? With a handful of popsicle sticks, rubber bands, and a bunch of ideas in my head.

The final result! Now, how did I get here...

The basic connections

The basis of all my connections involved interlacing popsicle sticks and then lashing them together with rubber bands. This would basically hold the sticks together by tension and friction, as the rubber band lashings pressed the sticks against each other.

I used a similar process for the corners, using two crossed rubber bands to hold the sticks at the desired angles.

The iPhone holder

I roughly measured the size of the iPhone holder and lashed a rough rectangle about that size. The nice thing about using a this method instead of glue is that it was easy to tweak and adjust the positioning of the sticks until it was just right.

I then found ways to make a slightly raised edge on all of the sides to hold the iPhone in place. I added some support sticks on the bottom, making sure not to obscure the iPhone's camera.

The base 

The base was by far the most difficult section to design--the final design shown below was my third effort. I needed something that provided a lot of support for the vertical arm so that it would not bend or tilt forward when it had weight, but was also relatively flat on the bottom, so that it could rest cleanly on a surface. I always intended to put weight on the structure to hold it down, and so this also needed to provide a surface to hold that weight.

An earlier design of the base. It was easier to weigh down this base,
but it was much less stable than my final design.

The final design that worked had a cross-brace and several connections that held the vertical support firmly to the base, but was also connected by a flattened square piece that rested against the table.

I made sure that the base had some thickness to it, so that the cross-brace and other supporting pieces would not be resting directly against the table.

Stability concerns

I was quite worried about stability, as interacting with the iPad could cause vibrations in the table, which would shake the device and lead to a poor-quality video. To compensate, I added several cross-braces to the structure.

A few cross-braces to the vertical arm quite effectively eliminated the up-and-down vibrations.

I added in these cross-braces to the iPhone holder, which eliminated the side-to-side vibrations of the holder itself.

Unfortunately, it does still wobble a bit from side to side. This appears to be caused by the main vertical arm twisting from side to side. It's not a major problem, and in fact my testing of the device found that it worked fine despite this twisting, so I let it be. You can tell from my banging of the table, that any sort of tapping on the iPad itself did not cause noticeable shaking.


It was quite interesting dealing with these stability issues; I found myself learning directly why cross-braces were so important to design and how forces were carried through the structure. Of course I'd read textbooks about these issues in different physics and engineering classes that I've taken, but I don't think I really developed an intuition for these forces until I gained this tactile experience by building something.


That's it! The whole building process probably took about 3-4 hours, spread out over a week. There was a lot of thinking in between building sessions, about how to keep the base rugged yet flat, or where the instability was originating in the design. But now I have it, a device to record my Apple device with my Apple device.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

5 Signals that an "Educational Game" Isn't Really a Game

Kids love games, but why do they hate educational games? The short answer is that most aren't truly games, because being gamelike means a lot more than having flashy graphics and a point system. As an educational game developer, I think one of the most damaging aspects to this industry is when people call things games in order to get kids to play them when they clearly aren't games.

How can you spot the fake games masquerading as educational games? Here are a few signals I've picked up on over time.

1. When walking through a demo of the game, the game designer stops to say "And this part is where the learning occurs."

The learning should be everywhere, not in one part of the game. If you can compartmentalize the part of the game that is about learning, you did something wrong. One such example would be breaking up the game to show a player an instructional video- if you are using a video to teach, then you are not using the gameplay to teach.

Friday, June 20, 2014

How to support teens in leading STEM "Curious Sessions" for Youth

This is a guest post from After School Matters, an organization we work with in Chicago. This past spring we partnered with some of their wonderful teen participants who brought the Curiosity Machine to a local library. Find out more about ASM here.

Science Innovation & Me is an After School Matters STEM pre-apprenticeship program at Erie Neighborhood House for 15 CPS high school teens. Over the Spring Cycle (January – April 2014), Michelle Barrera’s teens explored free design-thinking modules on the online portal, Curiosity Machine. The teens selected and practice four design-thinking challenges from the Curiosity Machine and then led “Curious Sessions” at the Bridgeport library branch for young children. Here’s Michelle’s story about how she integrated the Curiosity Machine and peer-to-peer teaching into her program – and how you can do it, too!
Michelle guides one of her ASM teens in using the Curiosity Machine.
A little about your fellow ASM instructor, Michelle Palomino:
Chicago native, Michelle Palomino, has been working at Erie Neighborhood House since 2007. She runs a variety of programs, such as ASM’s Science Innovation and Me, a youth council, and sports. She also coordinates a middle school program called Scientists for Tomorrow, helps youth with homework time, develops youth programming, and facilitates retreats. Michelle is currently pursuing her Masters in Education at DePaul University.
In Michelle’s words, “I love being able to engage and motivate young people to explore science. I enjoy being able to explain concepts, planning lessons, taking students on field trips, and being able to teach through hands-on activities. However, what I love the most is instilling in my students a passion for learning. My students know they are capable to researching, gathering information and creating experiments and models on any topic they are curious about, and they know this because we have done it together.”

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets

When I encountered Carol Dweck and her work on mindsets for the first time, I could almost physically feel a shift in my understanding. No gradual reveal here; it was immediate. To be clear, I'm not saying I read her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and stumbled into a life of success and happiness primarily defined by my shiny  new "growth mindset"--as I write this, I'm writing from a still primarily "Fixed mindset"--but Dweck's work has profound implications for the way people interact with the world, and even in those first encounters, that was evident.

Carol Dweck's work is foundational to our philosophy at Iridescent--Mindset is on the team reading list, and we discuss the idea of fixed and growth mindsets with parents we work with, and include it in our mentor training materials. A growth mindset so well describes the traits Iridescent hopes to foster in students, including curiosity, creativity, persistence and courage, that we share it with everyone who works with us.

Dweck descibes two basic kinds of mindsets: fixed and growth.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Similarities between Communism and the Common Core

When I was on my high school debate team, we would discuss all kinds of philosophical principles "in theory." I remember several discussions about Communism in which the common tagline was: "It was a good idea in theory, too bad it didn't work in practice." That phrase always bothered me. To me, a good idea was something that worked. If something couldn't be put into practice, it just wasn't a good idea, in theory or practice.

Understanding human nature is a vital component to an idea being good. If you have an idea for how people should interact with each other, but that idea doesn't respect aspects of human nature and psychology, then it's just a plain bad idea. And that was the problem with Communism to me, it didn't respect how people work. It didn't respect our intrinsic needs for agency, competency, and ownership. If you are designing a solution for people, it has to work for people, it can't just be "good in theory," in some abstract, idealistic sense of the word.

More recently, I've come to understand a similar sentiment in Silicon Valley entrepreneurial world. Venture capitalists aren't just looking for a good idea. They are looking for someone who has a good team behind them and can lead them to success, someone who understands the market and how to reach users: in sum, they are looking for someone who understands people, both internally in building their team, and externally in getting users. Great ideas are a dime a dozen: great realizations of great ideas are rare gems worth funding. In other words, you can't get funding with a great idea in theory: you need to have a great idea in practice.

Now, let's shift to the Common Core. First a distinction- I want to distinguish between the Common Core framework, and the system of high stakes achievement tests used to determine whether students have passed the tests. Sidenote: by high stakes, I mean there are consequences for both students and for teachers based on the results of the tests- a low stakes test can evaluate how smart students are, but low and high scores have absolutely no consequences for students or teachers, they simply give feedback on how well the system is doing. When states "adopt" the Common Core, it typically means they adopt both of these things, they aren't just giving their teachers a new set of standards to teach, they are also implementing a system of high risk testing.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Quick Look at the Common Core

As testing begins to roll out in the first states to adopt the Common Core standards, we thought it would be useful to talk about Common Core--what it is and how it's being implemented, and what that means. We're going to keep talking about it in coming weeks and weighing in with what we think, but thought an overview was the best place to start.

What is Common Core?

The Common Core Standards are benchmarks in English and Math that spell out the skills students should have at each grade level. Common Core is often explained as a guide to help states as they write their curricula, although some critics are fearful that the standards are intrusive and limit teacher authority and independence.  States still devise their own standards, tests, and curricula, but the Common Core standards detail what skills students are expected to develop each year, and provide lists of 'exemplary' reading material.

Common Core was proposed, developed and adopted in an effort to ensure that students all over the country would graduate with the same "skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, careers, and life" according to the Common Core website. This push for new standards developed out of a recognition of the wide variations in college readiness across state lines (so, for instance, a high school student might be qualified to graduate according to Florida standards, but not by Indiana standards. This also meant that many students were placed in mandatory remediation classes upon enrolling in college).

Who developed Common Core?
The Common Core was developed by a committee made up of educational organizations, and high ranking education officials. One of the key architects was David Coleman (who is also currently serving at the President of the College Board), so his is a name you may see in discussions associated with the Common Core. Coleman and many other officials have been emphatic in their explanations that teachers played an integral role in developing the standards as well. 
Over the past few years, two groups--Super Balance (composed of representatives from 23 states) and PARRC (composed of representatives from 17 states)--have been at work developing the standardized tests to evaluate the implementation of Common Core.