iLEAD’s DreamUp Missions Rise to Virtual Challenges to Empower Learners

iLEAD’s DreamUp Missions Rise to Virtual Challenges to Empower Learners

Around the world, facilitators of project-based learning have experienced the impact of the global pandemic. Some projects don’t translate as well virtually, but some don’t skip a beat. iLEAD’s DreamUp to Space Experiment Design Challenge, a project developed in partnership with DreamUp spinoff NanoRacks, is one of these. The project gives learners a chance to design experiments to be launched to the International Space Station, pushing the boundaries of how learners look at the Earth and our universe.

Led by Kathleen Fredette, iLEAD Schools Director of STEAM Initiatives, this effort is not about playing at science but rather about thinking deeply and crafting proposals for experiments that can be run on the International Space Station.

Although everyone involved has to work remotely and virtually, Fredette said this year’s participants were incredibly involved and engaged. Learners drafted 200 submissions or proposals this year, representing 5th-8th graders from five iLEAD programs: SCVi, iLEAD Lancaster, iLEAD Exploration, iLEAD Online and iLEAD Spring Meadows

Fredette said the goal of iLEAD’s DreamUp mission is to help learners develop scientific mind-sets, inspiring them to to deeply explore gravity, microgravity and scientific experimentation. “This informs them how things behave in space and what challenges humans need to overcome to realize long-term space travel and colonization,” Fredette said. “Then they make meaning by collaborating with small groups of learners to come up with and justify an experiment’s flight to space.”

Throughout the spring and beyond, learners had a variety of learning experiences that included weekly challenges, weekly briefings, demonstrations, video design and reflections, badges for successful challenge completion and lots of collaboration.

At the same time, Fredette points out that these missions are very personalized: self-paced, self-motivated and even self-scored. She said these missions emphasize self-discovery and making one’s own journey. “We’re always trying to start with curiosity. Instead of just reading about Newton’s Law, let’s create environments where learners maintain their curiosity about gravity,” Fredette said. “Real learning is hard work, but we want it to be continued self-discovery. And I think gamifying and badging complement this.”

The experience is powerful, engaging and empowering not only for learners but also for iLEAD staff and facilitators who participate. Amber Soto, iLEAD’s Director of Mathematics, said that although she’s always been interested in space, thanks to her father and early childhood experiences, she learned and experienced more through the DreamUp mission than she anticipated. “I went in thinking it would be an opportunity to learn about space, and I ended up learning so much more about education — and I have been in the ‘business’ now for over 20 years!” 

Soto said it was amazing to observe each learner’s curiosity be sparked. “These kids were honestly so invested. It was absolutely beautiful to see them so excited each week to learn more,” Soto said. “I look forward to following this journey and also starting new ones as we shift into a different style of learning and growing via a source of inspiration! It has inspired me to rise up, fall back and then let them fly!”

One of the many exciting elements of DreamUp is the collaboration between the learners, iLEAD facilitators and their higher education and expert partners. For example, iLEAD DreamUp participants have collaborated with Dr. Jeffery R. Hughey, a biology instructor from Hartnell College’s Math, Science and Engineering department.

Hughey said he was excited to observe learners, their parents and facilitators grow through the DreamUp mission. For example, he said one group went into the field, to a beach they’d never been to, scaled down through bushes on a steep and slippery hill under a bridge and then located seaweed they had never seen before.

Adventure of the unknown is one of the greatest joys of science. It’s the hunt that personally keeps me excited about research,” Hughey said. “I believe it was these very things — adventure of the unknown and the hunt — that made this part of this project unique.” 

Hughey was referring to the group collecting seaweed — or California Nori (Pyropia perforata) — themselves. And then, with some guidance, they had to set up an experiment to test whether or not the growth of this seaweed on Earth will be similar to or different from its growth in microgravity on the International Space Station.

“To hand-pick something on a beach that you didn’t know existed one day, and then the next day package it and send it on a rocket to the ISS is pretty daunting,” Hughey said. “It doesn’t get more unique than that.”

Fredette said the DreamUp work is more relevant than ever, as the US is for the first time in years sending astronauts  to the International Space Station. She also sees a correlation between our current pandemic challenges and this project. She explains that although there are many negatives related to the COVID crisis, there have been some positives. One of those, according to Fredette, is the available white space some are experiencing. 

“Many of us — leaders, facilitators, learners, scientists, experts — have been working remotely and digitally. This creates an environment that might produce new degrees of innovation and creativity,” Fredette said. “And isn’t that what scientific exploration is all about?”

Pictured: iLEAD’s 2020 DreamUp to Space Virtual Mission & Experiment Design Challenge winners: Quentin Gauge (iLEAD Exploration, 6th grade) and Hutch and Sophia Siegen (SCVi, 5th/6th grade). Learn more here.