Engaging Families in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Project-Based Learning (Harvard Family Research Project)

In Iridescent Family Science courses, families explore and discover science together.

Voices From the Field
Iridescent is a science education nonprofit that engages underserved children and families in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) project-based learning. Iridescent helps parents learn how to support their preschool through fifth-grade children in STEM-related activities at home and in the community. Through hands-on exploration, children learn STEM concepts. This knowledge is especially important as young children transition to school, where they are expected to engage in meaningful STEM-related coursework.


Engineers trained: 2,500 engineers and scientists from more than 10 universities and several major corporations

Number of families and children served: 28,000 children ages Pre-K–12 and parents across the U.S. and around the world

Demographics of children/families served: Hispanic and African-American; 90 percent of students are on free or reduced-price lunch

Number of schools: More than 600

Main locations: Los Angeles and the Bay Area, New York, Chicago, and Seattle

Iridescent’s mission is to train professional engineers to develop and teach open-ended projects to children and parents, who can then explore these ideas at home and in the community. Iridescent’s work is guided by the family learning approach to informal science. This approach emphasizes that students learn best when they can explore hands-on, real-world problems with adults and peers in different settings.1 The model has four main components (see Figure 1):

The four components of Iridescent's model

Figure 1. The four components of Iridescent's model.


Train Scientists and Engineers     1. Train Scientists and Engineers
Engineers participate in science communication and curriculum development training to learn how to create open-ended engineering design challenges for children and families. This training has been field-tested for more than seven years and is offered as an elective course approved by the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology at some 10 universities.


Produce and Share Videos Online  2. Produce and Share Videos Online
To inspire learners and make science accessible to everyone, Iridescent produces high-quality videos of open-ended engineering design challenges on its interactive online and mentoring platform, the Curiosity Machine. The Web and mobile application features videos of scientists and engineers explaining STEM concepts, and each video is accompanied by an open-ended design challenge. For example, an aerodynamics engineer might explain the effect of wing shape on a plane’s ability to fly, and then challenge students and families to design a glider that flies for 10 seconds using a range of materials, such as tissue paper, poster board, and straws.


Mentor Online 3. Mentor Online
Virtual mentors are available via the Curiosity Machine to provide one-on-one feedback to students and help them build more effective projects in response to design challenges. Students can earn points and badges when they respond satisfactorily to the mentors and are able to prove their understanding of the concept.


Train Parents and Educators  4. Train Parents and Educators
Iridescent builds parent competencies to promote their children’s STEM learning and to train other parents. Empowering parents to set up and facilitate courses is an important part of Iridescent’s work because it ensures that the program will endure. The program offers two types of training for families:

Fall Family Science Course
Iridescent offers a series of five weekly evening family-science course sessions to children in grades Pre-K–5 and their families. Engineers introduce the core concepts of their work and then outline an open-ended engineering design challenge, such as one that invites families to design a “lunar lander” that will safely land a raw egg on the moon (see video below). Walking around the room, engineers offer guidance, help with decision making, prototyping, and troubleshooting. Engineers also help participants analyze and reflect on their work and provide tips for them on how to keep improving their models at home. During the last two sessions, engineers introduce the online Curiosity Machine as a resource to extend learning and building at home.

Spring and Summer Parent-led Curiosity Course
A group of parents from the fall course participates in training to lead a five-week “Curiosity Course” for other parents. Iridescent trains parent leaders during a one-day workshop and a four-hour online course. Parent leaders learn (1) how to promote a growth mindset2, in which families learn to see success as a function of hard work, (2) how to ask open-ended questions, and (3) how to encourage and support children and families to develop confidence in themselves as scientists. Parent leaders also facilitate sessions in the local library over the summer.

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Design challenges create opportunities for families and children to explore science concepts in creative ways.


An external evaluation of the STEM model has identified learning gains for families and children. Parents increased their involvement in STEM and children gained STEM knowledge, along with persistence and curiosity. Two family engagement findings stand out:

  • 90% of families discussed science more often, watched more science shows, and read more science books at home, and
  • 65% engaged in more science activities, such as building things, playing with science kits, and going to museums and zoos.

The implementation evaluation of the model, along with external and internal evaluations, has also highlighted the following lessons:

  • Mentors have an effect.
    The Curiosity Machine with its virtual mentors is successful in motivating and supporting underserved families to do design challenges at home.3 Since the launch of the platform, there have been more than 1,000 active users, of whom 500 have submitted fully completed projects, validating that access to mentors is a powerful incentive to persist and finish challenges. In contrast, typical completion rates of assignments on online courses is lower than 10%.4


  • Timing makes a difference.
    Typically, families successfully use the online platform at home to work on projects within one or two months of an in-person program. To make sure that the Curiosity Machine is utilized in ongoing ways throughout the year, Iridescent now tries to spread Family Science and Curiosity Courses out over longer periods of time to keep families engaged.


  • Professional development matters.
    Engineers, parents, and educators need professional development to motivate their continued involvement and efforts. A robust training ensures they understand the mission, philosophy, pedagogy, and vision.


  • It is important to address barriers to family engagement.
    Although families are very motivated and willing to access opportunities for high-quality education for their children, it is critical to address basic logistical barriers to engagement. At Iridescent dinner is provided at events, instructions are translated, tutorials on how to use technology are provided, and materials used for design are always low cost.  


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Iridescent gives families opportunities to be leaders in their children's learning.

The next step for Iridescent is to increase its retention of children and families across program years and for communities to continue learning beyond Iridescent’s support. Iridescent will also be improving its Family Science course by helping parents identify concrete goals for a six-month time frame as well as visible and easy ways to track their families’ progress. Iridescent is planning to develop an online curriculum so that parents can access training materials at their own pace and develop easy-to-understand research-based briefs that help parents improve their parenting strategies.

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