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When Viterbi Students and Kids Come Together, Sparks Fly

October 24, 2007 — After one of Tara Chklovski’s “build and fly” workshops, a 12-year-old middle school student can explain what makes an airplane fly. And that’s exactly what Chklovski wants every 12-year-old to know.
Designing the fuselage.

She and two of her Viterbi School student instructors — Emily Hedges and Kimberly Popp — are accomplishing that one workshop at a time.

This semester, the threesome and other Viterbi School aerospace engineering majors are conducting a series of science and engineering workshops for children at the 32nd Street/USC Magnet Center, the James A. Foshay Learning Center and St. Agnes Parish School.  For the first time, these students will gain an understanding of some pretty complicated — and intimidating — scientific principles. Concepts like lift, buoyancy, stability and control, Newton’s laws of motion, free-body diagrams and renewable energy, to name just a few. 

They learn by experimenting, not reading.   

“Experimentation is the key to the imagination,” said Chklovski, a Viterbi School aerospace graduate student who took a break from her Ph.D. studies to found Iridescent Learning, a nonprofit educational organization offering hands-on science and engineering workshops to urban schools locally.  Each workshop provides five hands-on lessons in a range of fields, such as aeronautics, optics, renewable energy, sailing and marine sciences. All of the lessons are aligned with California State Science Standards and draw on the expertise of science and engineering students from USC, UCLA, Caltech and Stanford University.

“The students were really excited about us being in their classroom and very engaged,” said Hedges, a Viterbi School senior aerospace engineering major, who was in charge of planning the lessons this year at 32nd Street School. “I love watching students learn and figure out new things….I definitely think they were benefitting.”  
Matthew Miller, a Viterbi School AME senior, shows kids at St. Agnes Parish School how to build their airplanes. 

Her co-instructor, Popp, a Viterbi School mechanical engineering major minoring in kinesiology, has already had a lot of experience with kids, coaching sports and helping her parents teach, but she said the kids “really become excited about learning” when she introduces a science experiment.  

"It was a great experience when we walked up to the classroom every day,” Popp said.  “The kids were anxious to go inside; they were always asking, ‘What are we doing today?  What are we doing today?’”

 Daniel Calvo and Matthew Miller — fellow Viterbi School aerospace seniors — were having just as much fun at St. Agnes Parish School teaching aeronautics to sixth graders, while Adriel Carreno and Jennarae Lee introduced students at Foshay Learning Center to new ideas in renewable energy.  All of the Viterbi aerospace seniors are enrolled in Chklovski’s directed research class (AME 490), earning credit toward their degrees for conducting the workshops. 

Chklovski offered her first workshop in July 2006, at Eagle Rock Elementary School, after deciding that she could make a difference in the lives of young students by sparking their interest in learning about the physical universe. Growing up in India, she developed an early interest in education from her parents, who still run two K-8th grade schools in north India.   
“I love to find things out, and I thought I could motivate other people, especially children, to develop a love for science and engineering by showing them how much fun it is to experiment,” said Chklovski, who earned an undergraduate physics degree at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi, then a master’s degree in aerospace engineering in 2004  from Boston University.   “So I just merged those two interests — my physics work and my interest in teaching — and went out into the community with hands-on science programs.  And Iridescent was born.”

She fashioned a special brand of experimental workshop, then tweaked each workshop according to the feedback she got from the previous class.  One-and-a-half years and 35 workshops later, she has conducted classes in 21 locations in three cities, including many Los Angeles-area schools, at the Natural History Museum, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Stanford, the Peninsula Bridge Program in Palo Alto, CA, the Pacific Palisades Public Library, the Sally Ride Science Festival and the Upward Bound Program.  
Viterbi School AME senior Emily Hedges, left, and ME senior Kimberly Popp, right, teach a workshop at the 32nd Street//USC Magnet Center.

“Our approach has been distilled from 950 hours of lesson development and 200 hours of workshop instruction to 750 students,” said Chklovski.  Her tally sheet also indicated that the courses have also consumed 630 hours of evaluation time, 850 hours of research, and produced feedback from more than 600 students.    
As an indicator of teacher’s confidence in the quality of the workshops, six workshops, including those being taught currently at 32nd Street, St. Agnes and Foshay, have now been held as part of the regular curriculum during school hours, she added.

By 2007, Iridescent workshops were catching on, and Chklovski received funding from USC’s Good Neighbors Campaign to supplement classroom materials for three of the USC community schools.  She asked Viterbi School faculty Fred Browand, Ron Blackwelder and Michael Kassner in the Department of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering Department (AME) to help her set up a directed research class (AME 490) that would allow her to recruit and work with interested AME seniors who wanted to try classroom teaching.  

The classes were a hit. Sixth, seventh and eighth grade students at the 32nd Street/USC Magnet Center love it. So do the kids at St. Agnes and Foshay.

“It was great when a student came up to me during our buoyancy workshop and told me how fun the experiments were,” Hedges said. “It really helps when the students find the experiments fun, because then they’ll see science as fun and not intimidating or scary.”
Crafting a pair of wings. 

The show of support from teachers and students prompted Chklovski to apply for a National Science Foundation grant to expand the program and turn the workshops into family affairs. To do this, she wants to organize a powerful group of collaborators, including partnerships and community-based organizations, universities and science institutes, under one umbrella, which she calls in her NSF proposal the “Family Science Project.” If funded, she will be staging workshops for families from underserved populations in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas. 

“Family, school and community are probably the most influential spheres in people’s lives, so when they can all work together to improve the quality of our children’s education, it’s far more likely that we’ll be raising inquisitive, lifelong learners,” Chklovksi said. “We are proposing a medium-scale, informal science education project that will spark and hold the interest of both children and their parents, because we know from many studies that parental involvement makes a difference in a child’s education.”