Project Description

Throughout the spring semester, in the Learning Technology class, we had the challenge to design a learning experience integrating technologies informed by the literature based on personal interest. I worked with Anahit Vardanyan in the design process of this project; our shared interest in underrepresented populations in STEM (especially girls), designing informal learning experiences, and the use of technology to make learning visible and learning through the interaction with manipulatives was an excellent asset for developing ideas for this particular learning design. My colleague Anahit, and I worked collaboratively on developing a mock-up of "Telling Science; exploring everyday STEM through stories" a gamified application blending digital and physical interactions.

We combined both affordances of digital technology and the constructionist approach by having kids engage with manipulatives and physical tangibles and materials found in everyday contexts (home/the hardware store/outdoors). The experience was designed to be held in an app in which anchoring stories were presented as cues of cultural forms. Through these digital stories, characters of the story would encounter challenges that would prompt the kids to help the characters solve them through science and engineering processes in real life. Learners take the role of agents who experiment with various affordable physical materials and can be found at home or outdoors to help the character solve challenges.

The "Telling Science" app is aimed to be used in informal settings such as home, playing with friends after school, or with family members. Our targeted learners are children between 8 and 15 (upper elementary and middle school).

Learning Objectives

Through "Telling Science" we wanted learners to:

  • Develop interest, curiosities & dispositions toward science

  • Go through a scientific (engineering) process and identify the main components

  • Develop an identity as problem solvers through science

  • Creative problem solving- employing real-life science processes & scientific inquiry

Design conjectures

Theoretical lenses that guided our design...

The main overarching framework that we took as lenses that guided our design is Thick Authenticity by Resnick and Shaffer (1992). As we read this theory we decided that we wanted our experience to be authentic in all the different dimensions that the framework drawns.

Other theories of the learning sciences complemented ideas, components, and design decisions, you can read more about how these theories informed our design below.

Click on the boxes below to learn about how other theories were lenses to inform our design were:

Constructionism (Papert/Kafai/Resnick)

Learners engage in the process following the narrative of the story and build their knowledge by constructing artifacts in real life that aim to solve problems in the storyline. “Thinking with”… the artifacts they create that reflect big ideas and STEM concepts.

Problem-based learning

The stories frame an open-ended authentic problem that challenges children to go through the process of engineering a solution based on STEM concepts or methods. The problem would be introduced in stages so that learners can identify critical steps that will lead them to research the targeted solution. Afterward, learners reflect on the process they went through and explain their understanding of it.

Anchored instruction (Bransford)

Anchored instruction is a technology-based learning approach that stresses the importance of placing learning within a meaningful, problem-solving context. Anchored instruction uses context- stories or micro- to situate the learning and application of knowledge.

For our learning design this implies that the learning is contextualized in stories that provide students with roles (e.g, scientists or engineers) that serve to enhance their mental model building.

Cuing through cultural forms (Horn)

Tangible interactions with familiar materials help learners understand new concepts by seeing them related to something they already know.

In our case, stories play the role of cuing cultural forms as kids that aged are familiar with storybooks

Design Process: The Learning Journey

For the first iteration of our design, we designed an outline of how we imagined the different stages of the learning design happening as desirable interactions that could be supported by the technology. We took insights from the literature review key aspects such as:

Design decision: Stories for cuing through cultural forms

Stories are something that kids are familiar with (cuing through cultural forms), so if we situated a STEM challenge in a story, it would be more authentic for them to engage in solving a challenge through a problem-based learning approach. That is how we decided that the first stage of the experience would be learners freely choosing digital stories from a library. One constraint we put on the stories was that they presented STEM challenges but that the narratives and characters were not based on typical science or engineering stereotypes, so more kids would be interested in engaging with the stories.

Design decision: Scaffolding was needed!

As we were moving forward with the design, and revising the literature, we realized that it was necessary to provide to the learners with "just- in time scaffolding" for different purposes and at different stages of the experience. From a sociocultural and cognitive apprenticeship approach, we realized that by having a mentor/learning companion that provides guided scaffolding to learners. In this particular challenge, we constraint the experience so that learners could engage with it without necessarily having a significant adult (caregiver or teacher) that facilitates the experience directly. So, we decided to consider the technology's affordances to create an interactive character that could cover different objectives.

That is how we came up with the idea of "Quirky", a learning science companion as part of one of the core technologies, as through digital interactions and by asking questions and giving suggestions in different stages. Read below the different roles that we imagined Quirky could have as learners engage in the stories and challenges with the technology.

Meet Quirky;

The learning agent that scaffolds the learner throughout the whole learning journey in different ways!

Second iteration: Learning Journey

For a second iteration, we outlined the learning journey in an ordered way in which we combined the digital and physical desired interactions in which the learner;

  1. Opens up the app, and chooses a story that looks interesting to them in which a character of the story is presenting a challenge that requires a solution based on a science or engineering process.

  2. Learners can help the character solve the problem in the "physical world" by using manipulatives and materials that could be easily found and home and/ or accessible.

  3. Quirky, the learning agent, scaffolds learners through this process by providing prompts, guides, feedback and marking relevant scientific concepts and processes while reinforcing STEM identity in learners.

  4. Then, the learner can upload their solution to the technology by taking a picture or video, and the technology would process it and embed it in the digital story.

  5. Afterward, Quirky would ask the learner to give an explanation of the process they came up with to solve the challenge. Quirky based on these responses, might provide guidance, scaffolding or help learners use the proper concepts.

  6. After the story is "closed", learners would meet a real scientist , from different cultural and social backgrounds throughout a short video in which they would explain how the challenge they encountered is similar to a STEM challenge!

Design decision: Self-explanation

We realized by engaging in critique and feedback sessions with our professor and colleagues, that a self-explanation part in which learners explained how they came with up the solution to the challenge presented would be important as a way for assesing the quality of those explanations.

Design decision: Meet a real scientist!

Revising the learning objectives, we noticed we needed a component that was missing for building dispositions towards science that could then develop into identity development,, in which learners could refer to a "role model" in the STEM areas. Keeping the "thick authenticity" framework into account, we knew we needed to bring back an element of authenticity and the end of the experience so that learners could see real scientists in action as well as compare and contrast the different applications of science and engineering. We decided it was important to have in this section, a variety of examples of different professionals in the field with diverse backgrounds, cultures, and gender.

For this iteration, we also created an example of a story.

The narrative was about a snail that moved very slowly and, therefore, took a lot of time to get home. Sometimes the snail had to travel at night and because it was very dark, he couldn't find his way home. The challenge is to create special glow anthems to light his way back home. Two main stages involved science/engineering concepts:

  • Kids have to create a model of the snail with playdoh created from scratch. They have to create two types of doh; conductive and non-conductive. While learning science concepts about which ingredients are conductive and why based on the chemical ions (salt vs sugar).

  • Kids engineer a model of the snail in which using the conductive and non-conductive doh, tape, a small battery, and Christmas lights and cables, they create a model of a lighting snail.

Accessible tangible materials

Model of the lighting snail

IMG_0322 2.mp4

Next steps & Future challenges


What we did well:

  • Integration of learning technologies: Integrating into the design hybrid interactions; in the physical world through "hands-on " activities and in the "virtual" world through interactive stories and digital learning companions by taking into account the affordances of both interactions.

  • Variation among learners & social justice: Engage in the thought process and challenge of designing learning experiences that help kids from different backgrounds, cultures and genders, engage in STEM concepts and further, develop a STEM identity.

  • Providing various resources and scaffolding for mental model building through the content of the story and the specific just-in time advice from "Quirky" is a good asset of our design, but still we need to prototype and those expected interactions with real learners.

What we would do different/needs more work and refinement:

  • Addressing learning objectives: Scope is needed in learning objectives we have to decide if we are going to focus for future iterations in either Science AND engineering challenges, only science challenges or only engineering challenges. We have decide also how, if we are going to stand by the "STEM concepts" we are going to integrate in an interdisciplinary way math and technology concepts.

  • Sustaining engagement: Whereas the design might be inviting with the storylines and engaging with constructing solutions, we have think about ways of sustaining engagement overtime if we want learners to come "back" over and over, after they finished a challenge, and play with other stories and challenges. Maybe thinking about a gamified format that includes game mechanics could be an idea to test in further iterations.

  • Social justice: Whereas this initial idea was a game to be played in an app, we have to address have a version available for children who do not have access to a tablet. Thinking about this issue, we must go back in the process and think about "low-tech" ways in which this game could be played, for example having an interactive printed book to tes. Also it is important to think about ways in which the stories are translated to other languages, include accessibility features such as close captions and audio guides, etc.

Key takeaways

Self-growth as a learning engineer, insights of the process:

  • Inform our design from theoretical frameworks from the learning sciences and authors that have designed and implemented real learning experiences supported by technology in different ways. These examples served us as design lenses and inspiration to imagine a develop ideas that could be accomodated into our learning design in order to achieve the desired learning objectives.

  • Develop an example of a story to test some of our conjectures and share it with our colleagues in class for feedback. Through this process, we realized the complexity of creating stories for anchoring instruction and into a problem-based approach while including STEM.

  • Because of time constraints, we couldn't test the idea and the prototype with learners on the targeted population. I consider that it is one of the main drawbacks of the design because we build from the learning theories and we imagined desirable features of the technology, but we didn't inform our design with feedback and ideas from kids. It would be interesting to co-design some of the stories and activities with them.

  • It was very hard to come up with stories that reflected real science concepts and/or engineering processes. For future iterations ,it would be nice to consult a group of subject matter experts in the field of STEM to create stories that reflect on curricular concepts that kids that age are being exposed to at school.

  • We imagined Quirky being able to do all of the desirable interactions, but we still have to investigate from a technical perspective if all of what we imagined is possible to build, and even before that, test some of the interactions through a "Wizard of Oz" prototyping and learn more specifics about how Quirky could be developed based on real data and feedback.