Be a Scientist

Be a Scientist Family working 2 listing

September 23rd, 2014

Be A Scientist! (BAS) is a five-year, full-scale development project designed to gather and disseminate data on the implementation and scalability of an informal science education program for underserved communities. In the BAS model, undergraduate engineering students facilitate STEM learning through workshops and other cost-effective strategies targeted at underserved families with children in grades 1-5. Be A Scientist! (BAS) is funded by an NSF AISL grant (2010-2015), and managed by Iridescent, a science and engineering education non-profit organization.

BAS is designed to connect underserved families directly with scientists and engineers with the aim of inspiring participants to see themselves as innovators and inventors, as well as cultivating the development of key 21st century skills of curiosity, creativity, and persistence. BAS adopts a “train-the-trainer” model, where engineering students are trained to develop and teach hands-on projects to local students and their families over the course of a five-week family science program held at a local school. This model consists of four steps:

  • Engineering students are trained to develop (hands-on) open-ended engineering design challenges that are inspired by, and illustrate a key concept from, their own work/research.
  • Engineering students test out their designs with local families during a five-week family science course at a local school.
  • The best designs are published on Iridescent’s online curriculum platform (which is funded by an NSF Transforming STEM Learning [TSL] NSF-TSL grant).
  • Iridescent then trains local teachers, after-school educators, and other parents to use this curriculum to engage more families.

This model provides 10 engineers with the opportunity to reach 500 children and parents. Over the past seven years—four of which have included conducting BAS—Iridescent has trained 1,400 engineers and scientists to engage 21,000 children and parents nationwide. It is through BAS that we have been able to field-test this four-stage model of public engagement with STEM, and plan to apply the lessons we’ve learned to bring it to scale with professional engineers as well as undergraduate students.

Partner organizations include University of Southern California’s (USC’s) School of Cinematic Arts and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, The Cooper Union, Los Angeles Natural History Museum, and New York Hall of Science.

Research Background for Be A Scientist!

Inspiration for BAS came from Iridescent’s previous three years of experience conducting and testing this model at 76 local schools in California, and a desire to scale the program further in California and New York. As outlined in the initial NSF proposal, BAS’ goals are to address three challenges facing the field of informal science education: (1) to identify scalable methods of engaging minority audiences in STEM; (2) to identify sustainable methods of supporting long-term learning; and (3) to enable families to develop deep content knowledge. In pursuing these goals, BAS has drawn on the practices of many other informal science education programs and initiatives, including the 2000 conference, “The Challenges and Impact of Human Genome Research for Minority Communities,” the Science Museum’s Dana Centre in London, Portal to the Public, BA perspectives, “Communicating Science: Tools for Scientists and Engineers”, “Ice Stories” from the Exploratorium, EQUALS Family Science Program, the Australian Family Science Project, 4-H, the Hands-On Science Outreach program, Open Classroom, and NSF ‘s Out of School Science Experiences.

Implementation and Progress

BAS was implemented in 2010 at six sites in LA and one site in New York, engaging 25 families in New York and 175 in Los Angeles, as well as 13 undergraduate engineering students. The study began with first-grade students in order to measure longitudinal impact over five years. In subsequent years we have seen fluctuations in our attendance and reach as we learned more about team and partner capacities and how best to deliver Family Science. The high number of schools (and contact hours) for the first year of BAS ultimately proved too large to be effective, and Years 2 and 3 focused on reaching a more manageable number of schools and refining program delivery. In Year 4, we shared the responsibility for recruitment and retention with parent volunteers and school administrations, resulting in an increase in participation, and greater investment in the program from both parents and schools.

BAS Total Reach

Since the inception of the program, the model itself has remained the same—undergraduate students enroll in a semester-long science communication course and learn to develop their own design challenges. They then engage families in these challenges through Family Science, which runs concurrent with their semester. Family Science courses consist of five evening sessions, each lasting two hours. Over the course of each session, families learn about a physics and engineering concept to address a design challenge that an engineering student has spent the first part of the semester developing. During the sessions families experience the full Engineering Design Process—from finding inspiration, to planning, building, testing, re-designing, and reflecting. The program encourages families to attend as a group, in order to build and learn together, as well as to support those parents who would otherwise need to arrange adequate child care. (Iridescent also covers food costs.)

Final deliverables of the project include 45 Family Science courses in LA and New York, involving 2,700 participants, and 90 engineering students, as well as the creation of curricula for 20 physics-based courses to be published on our online platform.

Annual evaluations have found that children develop positive attitudes towards STEM activities (including hands-on building), become more persistent in solving design challenges, and believe that they can go on to become STEM-based professionals. Parents have also developed positive attitudes towards STEM programs as well as positive perceptions of STEM jobs and careers, and there is evidence that they continue exploration, experimentation, inquiry, and building activities at home. Evaluations also indicate that the engineering students benefit from learning how to create engaging learning experiences and engineering design challenges, sharpening their own understanding of engineering concepts while communicating them to a non-professional or academic audience, and that they enjoy contributing to the local community and working with younger students. Engineering students also often express a sense of re-igniting the passion that originally led them to pursue a STEM degree. You can hear more from all participants here.

Future Plans

Iridescent model

2015 marks the final year of BAS. The Education Development Center (EDC) is planning the summative evaluation using a control group comparison to best measure the impacts of the program on students. We are also working closely with schools to transition to a model that will sustain the program beyond 2015. This transition will involve inviting parents and schools to co-invest in the program so that the schools, parents, and engineers will be able to carry on the courses together without Iridescent’s coordination.


“My son is definitely not forgetting that he is a science lover. He identifies himself as a scientist and is so proud of that. Despite any mistakes he may have made in class, he always walks away having explored and discovered new things about science and about himself.” (New York BAS parent, 2013)

BAS is externally evaluated each year by the EDC Center for Children and Technology to assess the design, development, and implementation of the program, and to understand participants’ experience with the activities and concepts. The reports also provide feedback and recommendations for improvements in project implementation. All evaluation results are publicly available through Iridescent’s website (and are also catalogued on

Evaluation impact

Looking beyond this award period, Iridescent plans to use evaluation reports, participant feedback, and BAS project team reflections to further develop a scalable and sustainable model that will enrich the the wider STEM education landscape. Through BAS and other concurrent programs, we’ve already tested the model with 14,000 engineers and scientists from 10 universities and major corporations, including Boeing, Intel, Medtronic, Con Ed, and SolidWorks, and reached 24,000 children and parents in South Los Angeles, the South Bronx, Chicago, and the Bay Area. As BAS wraps up, Iridescent is just getting started and will continue to engage parents, engineers, and technology in building a vibrant learning community by blending its in-person program methodology with a dynamic online platform:


Hupert, Naomi. “Year End Evaluation Report”. August 2014. Center for Children and Technology, Education Development Center: New York

Ba, Harouna. “Investigating the Implementation of the Be a Scientist! Project in New York City and Los Angeles: Formative Evaluation, Year Three”. 2013, Center for Children and Technology, Education Development Center: New York

Ba, Harouna. “Investigating the Implementation of the Be a Scientist! Project in New York City and Los Angeles: Formative Evaluation, Year Two”. 2012, Center for Children and Technology, Education Development Center: New York.

Ba, Harouna. “Investigating the Implementation of the Be a Scientist! Project in New York City and Los Angeles: Formative Evaluation, Year One”. 2011, Center for Children and Technology, Education Development Center: New York