The Challenge

Help Verizon expand access to STEM by designing an experience that students love and has educational rigor.


A mobile learning environment that immerses students in the concepts and career possibilities of engineering.

When Mr. Gordon told his fifth grade students that they were taking a field trip on a bus, many of them envisioned the city bus that they ride each day to school. But when they saw the Verizon Explorer Lab pull into the school parking lot, they realized a unique experience awaited them. Painted in bright colors, this bus promised something very different from their daily commute.

“Climb aboard, explorers!” says the Lead Explorer. The students walk through the bus’ sliding doors and inside, where instead of rows of seats, they find a sleek research lab. Suddenly, the lights dim. The bus makes a rumbling noise as though it’s about to lift off. And on a large screen, a vision of Earth from space appears. The students listen and point as the video narrator briefs them on NASA’s ongoing search for life in space.

Science education isn’t always this fun. Some kids have a chance to learn through interactive games, immersive experiences, or engaging field trips; but many lack access to rich educational experiences in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). As a result, they can be less likely to pursue careers in STEM, though many future jobs will demand mastery of these subjects. This not only impacts a student’s potential and future, but reduces the diversity and number of qualified STEM job applicants.

In under-resourced schools, students are often limited to the scarce tools available for STEM learning in their classrooms. Many kids rarely have a chance to leave their neighborhoods. For these kids, mobile learning experiences that come to their school offer unparalleled exposure to cutting-edge, technologically advanced, and—most importantly—inspiring gateways into these critical academic subjects.

As part of its focus on digital inclusion, Verizon partnered with IDEO to share the excitement of STEM learning with middle schoolers. To facilitate access and discovery of STEM, the team designed a learning experience that takes place on a coach bus and can be scaled to reach kids across the nation.

The team set out to transform the bus into the Verizon Explorer Lab: a futuristic research lab that transports kids to new environments, from outer space to under the sea. As part of the larger Verizon Innovative Learning program, the Verizon Explorer Lab offers delightful and rigorous content that meets national science standards.

A multidisciplinary team comprised of designers across interaction, communication, environments, games, and software partnered with Verizon to bring the Verizon Explorer Lab to life.

The Verizon Explorer Lab is equipped with dozens of screens and tablets displaying Hollywood-quality video and special effects, and the educational content is both scientist and teacher-approved.

To keep the student at the center of the experience, the team designed alongside kids. Their gravitation toward play, interaction, and technology inspired the digital game that students play onboard the bus. When developing the game’s narrative, the designers turned to popular kids’ books and movies. What began as a card game prototype eventually became a 360-degree video and virtual reality expedition to Mars—complete with a custom musical score—that introduces middle schoolers to engineering basics.

After stepping through the bus doors and taking a tour of the solar system, Mr. Gordon’s students receive an emergency call from NASA: They must rescue the missing Curiosity rover, which is dedicated to collecting evidence of life on Mars. Eager to save Curiosity, the students become immersed in the adventure at hand. And through the adventure, they become immersed in science.

Students use tablets to design their own Mars rover. Each rover appears on a large screen and traverses the planet’s extreme terrain. The goal is to collect data that suggests life on Mars, including ice deposits, photos, and more. Students iterate on their rover’s design—wheels, power sources, and sensors—to test if it can stand up against dust storms and craters. The team consulted a NASA planetary scientist to ensure accuracy, as well as educators to establish cohesion with classroom curricula.

Using their own tablet, students iterate on their rover design to help it collect as many samples from Mars’ surface as possible. The team consulted a Martian scientist to ensure every game element—from the rover wheels to the types of sediment on Mars—was accurate.

During the game, students are encouraged to compare designs and learn from each other: One rover may be able to travel long distances and take various photos, while another can carry large quantities of ice and sediment samples but can’t go far because of its size. At the end of the mission, the group finds Curiosity and sends all of the evidence they’ve collectively gathered back to NASA to aid the search for life beyond Earth. Before departing the bus, students watch an animated video that explains various jobs in STEM and encourages kids to pursue one of these careers.

Iterating on their rover’s features teaches students the engineering design loop. With over 200 possible rover designs, students can learn from each other’s creations and collaborate to collectively gather as much data as possible.

The Verizon Explorer Lab teaches students the engineering design loop, the value of collaboration and teamwork, and what a career in STEM might look like. The mission to Mars game is just one of many potential STEM learning opportunities for students and integrated, customizable learning modules for teachers.

Since launch, the Verizon Explorer Lab has traveled to various parts of the United States and reached thousands of kids. It continues to be managed by Learning Undefeated, Verizon’s nonprofit partner. By designing for and with students, it’s possible to create educational experiences that facilitate meaningful learning and genuine fun. The Verizon Explorer Lab represents progress towards a more inclusive future for employers and the STEM field.

Toys and Games
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