Echolocation is a classroom STEM kit that teaches 4th-grade students how dolphins use echolocation for navigation through a series of craft activities and interactive exercises.
Interaction design, 3D Fabrication, Usability testing, Video storytelling, Physical computing
Microsoft Education Workshop
Tanya Chang, Khai Nguyen
Hacking STEM uses Arduino and everyday materials to create projects that involve learning activities for students. The concept had to fulfill the following:
Align with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).
Consist of a low fidelity physical prototype and help visualize data using Processing
Should cost no more than $10, making it affordable for teachers.
Should have a high fidelity physical prototype for Microsoft Showcase.
The echolocation lesson plan uses two class periods. In the first, students build a low fidelity physical dolphin prototype with sensing capabilities. Students engage in two activities in the second class using this kit to better understand how echolocation works and how it is used by dolphins to navigate their environment.
Class 1 - Assembling the Kit
Students start by assembling the Arduino circuit and making a paper dolphin using a cutout. This kit is connected to a Laptop running Processing to complete the next two activities.
An instruction manual is provided which helps students through the process. The instructions use everyday materials for assembly to keep the costs low.
Class 2 - Echolocation and Maze Navigation
The first activity involves students using the sensing kit to measure the distance of an object and using our tool to visualize it on a graph. The second activity students blindfold themselves and rely on navigating a maze using just the audio signals from echolocation.
Beyond Black Boxes
We were inspired by Mitchel Resnick and Robbie Berg’s work on how ‘designing’ scientific instruments while ‘black boxing’ the rest helps students explore concepts and their own scientific curiosity. Throughout our ideation process, we chose to follow this approach by letting students explore a STEM concept through ‘designing’ it and move beyond black boxes.
We came up with ideas that explored multiple scientific concepts and aligned with NGSS. Each idea would have physical construction and visual interaction components.
We evaluated each of the ideas on criteria that included price constraint, ‘making’ ability of our users, how closely the concept related to the world around us. We chose to go ahead with the idea ‘measuring space’ and adapted it to teach students about echolocation.
01. The learning activity has to serve an additional purpose - keep the process intriguing
02. The activity should be simple enough for 4th graders to complete with minimal assistance from teachers.
We quickly moved to prototype the idea. We focused on making it easy for students to build their own prototype and keeping them engaged through all the activities. This was followed by getting feedback from teachers and students on the way.
Iteration 1: Video prototype
In our first iteration, I suggested creating a wearable echolocation device for students, giving them ‘echolocation’ abilities. This would assist them in navigating their environment similar to animals that rely on echolocation. The Processing interface on the laptop would visualize their location. This is idea is also called as triangulation and is used in GPS positioning.
Feedback from kids
I developed a video that incorporated all the activities and showed it to the kids. We observed their reactions, asked questions about their understanding of echolocation and expectations of the activity.
Iteration 1 takeaways
01. Triangulation activity was confusing and the lesson plan needed to focus on echolocation first.
02. The wearable device was big and heavy for our students and reconsidering the prototype form was necessary.
03. Introducing a theme would engage the students further with the interactive activity.
Iteration 2: Behavioral Prototype
Activities were streamlined to just two - one explaining echolocation and other navigating a maze using navigation. For visuals, a ‘pirate’ theme was introduced.
We migrated away from the wearable form factor and I created a ‘compass-like’ form for all the internal circuit that aligned with the pirate theme.
Feedback from Teachers and Parents
We tested this prototype with two teachers and one parent. The goal was to understand if the visualizations and the activities were suitable for 4th-grade students in the class.
“I think it’s a good way for kids to understand through interactive ways to grasp that concept.” - p3
“Thematically it feels a bit like a jump. The teacher would have to do the transition from nature example of bats and dolphins to pirates.” - p2
Iteration 2 Takeaways
01. The activity struck a good balance between education and engagement.
02. The pirate theme felt like a jump and a different ‘nature’ connection was felt more suitable.
03. The maze navigation activity was confusing due to roles involved and needed further simplification.
04. The numbers on the interface were unclear as the participants failed to understand what they represent.
Iteration 3: Functional prototype
We changed the theme from pirates to dolphin to build a real-life link with the concept. To achieve this I created a paper dolphin cutout that students could quickly assemble along with the Arduino circuit. This meant they would have a dolphin with echolocation capabilities!
Feedback from students
Having received good feedback on the concept and activities, this time we tested our prototype instruction document with students. This was done to see if the activity would be completed within the stipulated class time. Students were asked to create the paper dolphin and assemble the Arduino circuit.
Iteration 3 Takeaways
01. The dolphin paper cutout model was too difficult to assemble due to students’ varied craft skills and needed to be simplified.
02. The audio feedback from the echolocation kit was distracting and had to be toned down.
High Fidelity Prototype
I developed a high fidelity 3d printed dolphin prototype for the Microsoft Design Showcase. This dolphin incorporated all the circuitry inside it and could be used to complete echolocation activities.
We presented the Echolocation activity at Microsoft Education’s design showcase. Over the next few months, the Microsoft Education team will be working with Teachers to evaluate our idea and bring it to the classroom.
Managing stakeholder expectations
The project involved teachers, students, course faculty and Microsoft Education. Throughout the project, we had to manage the expectations of each stakeholder. This meant striking a balance between playful design for students vs information and learning based activity design for teachers. Though this meant we had a lot of back and forth on design concepts, I enjoyed getting to know the different points of view which finally helped us develop an all round product.
Designing under constraints
It was important for our team to understand that kids have different skill set compared to the user groups that we have designed for in the past. The classroom environment and budget constraints also limited our scope. Quick iterations and testing with different stakeholders as well as narrowing early to focus on a simple concept helped us navigate these constraints.