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January 16, 2015

BetterAt/School is a project supported by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The goal of the project is to explore ways that interest based learning software might bridge the gap between the Common Core Standards and the lack of motivation frequently found in low-income students.
BetterAt/School is a mobile learning platform with a set of protocols designed to optimize its use in formal learning contexts.


Form a team of four; find an unmet or poorly met need; verify and explore the need through research; conceive of a new product/service to better meet the need; design and prototype the product/service; and create a presentation summarizing your product/service. Time available: 6 weeks.


Catalyst is a service for scientists working in university, government and startup laboratories that connects those who need access to specialized, expensive lab instruments to laboratories willing to share them at a determined rate. The service supports sharing and improves the experience by making it easy to: list or search for instruments, schedule lab visits, manage payments, and support communication—both on and offline—between “guest” scientists and “host” labs. Catalyst eliminates access to instruments as a barrier to scientific research and gives scientists a new way to connect and collaborate.


Catalyst began when a PhD candidate in Chemistry from Howard University in Washington, D.C., explained how limited resources have affected his research. Among other issues, his use of older instruments made his experiments more difficult to replicate, which he felt limited the value of his work among his peers. The problem is widespread, and it’s limiting the careers of young scientists and the overall quality of scientific research in the United States.

The Catalyst team set out to design a service that would allow anyone, from any laboratory, access to the lab instruments they need to do their best work.

Proposed User Experience

A lab manager (host) creates a lab profile and lists instruments the lab will share. He provides information about instrument capabilities and proper usage, lab rules and expectations and supplies and training offered.

A scientist (guest) creates a profile, including affiliation, areas of interest and previous research. She searches for an instrument and compares options. She selects an instrument and submits a request, along with details about her experiment. She agrees to fees and lab rules.

The host approves the visit and Catalyst sends both host and guest a confirmation. The visit is added to the host lab’s calendar to alert others in the lab.

Guest and host receive a reminder on the day of the visit and the guest is prompted to review the lab rules. The guest can view a map and walking directions via the app. The host receives a mobile alert when she arrives.

The host greets the guest and provides a tour of the lab and training if required. The guest wears the Catalyst name tag delivered in her welcome package to let others know who she is and why she’s there. She gets an alert when her time is almost up.

The guest checks out using the Catalyst app and tells the host she is leaving. Payment is handled through the service. The guest and host are prompted to review each other after the visit. The guest also reviews the lab and instrument.


We conducted our project in three phases. In the first phase, we focused on understanding the depth and breadth of the problem of access for scientists in academic R&D labs. We looked at reports from the National Science Foundation on trends in national, state and corporate funding and talked to PhD candidates at Howard University in Washington, D.C. and a lab manager at the Illinois Institute of Technology to hear their stories first hand.

Because our original hypothesis focused on the transfer of idle lab instruments from corporate labs to academic labs to solve the problem of access, we conducted additional secondary research and expert interviews to better understand: why corporations store instruments instead of selling, recycling or donating them; the perception of second-hand lab instruments by scientists and lab managers in academic settings; and the activities and cost involved in the handling, transfer, use and maintenance of second-hand lab instruments.

We realized that we had a problem worth solving, but the wrong solution. Our research uncovered serious barriers to shifting instruments from corporate to academic labs, including complicated logistics and liability and safety issues. An interview activity we created to explore other concepts led our team to focus our next phase of research on exploring the idea of sharing, which we learned was a workaround already in use in the scientific community.

In the second phase of our project, we set out to learn as much as we could about sharing and developing a set of design principles for our service. Using what we already knew, we created a service journey as a hypothesis for how the service might work. We crafted a Google survey to test our assumptions and gather data from a larger pool of scientists working in a variety of labs about their perceptions of and experiences with sharing. We also used it as a recruiting tool, asking scientists to provide their contact information if they wanted to participate in a prototype of our service. We posted the survey on ResearchGate, a social network for scientists, and asked friends in the scientific community to share it with colleagues via Twitter and Facebook.

In the third phase, following our analysis of the survey data, we developed an interactive prototype to test usability, as well as the voice and tone of the service, and to uncover potential failure points. This helped us refine the offering and understand where we should be prescriptive in our design, and where we would be better off creating guard rails that would allow the community to self-regulate. For example, we knew we couldn’t entirely control interactions between the host and visiting scientists, but certain elements could nudge people toward ideal behaviors, like a ratings system, alerts to let visiting scientists know they should begin to wrap up their work and reminders about the lab’s rules and expectations.


The team created an interactive HTML demo to validate and refine their concept.

Final Results

All of the team’s work was collected into a final presentation and video.


The initial challenge from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was to find ways to relate intrinsic interests to the Common Core with the ultimate goal of helping students prepare for college and productive careers. The researchers’ goal was to explore ways that interest based learning software might bridge the gap between the Common Core Standards and the lack of motivation frequently found in low-income students.


This project builds upon research begun in 2005 at IIT Institute of Design (ID) funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The work centered on identifying ways that digital media could be beneficial to interest based learning. One of the initiatives that emerged from that was the Electronic Learning Record, which quickly developed into BetterAt.

A core assumption of this work is that learning is enhanced when it relates to a student’s goals and interests. For kids from home environments where they see a variety of jobs and people with choices about their future, the standard school experience can be supportive. For kids without these examples and choices, digital media can help by letting them start with their existing interests to expand their view of possible options.

Over the course of three years, the researchers employed strategic design methods to identify and uncover the needs, values, and challenges of informal learning. The research uncovered these opportunity areas: the need for reflection, congruence of formal and informal learning, and learning in purposeful interest networks.

First, people are suffering from information overload due to the proliferation of content and tools the internet has placed at our disposal. As a consequence, the critical task of reflecting on one’s learning has become even harder. BettrAt structures information in a way that encourages reflection.

Second, we believe that the apparent incompatibility of informal and formal learning can be overcome by linking people’s intrinsic interests to extrinsic learning goals. BettrAt puts people’s interests at the core—interest drives content and the learning trajectory.

Third, the social aspect of BettrAt software supports learning in networks, with groups as well as with mentors. BettrAt is optimized for learning from and among others rather than individually. The interactions between people on BettrAt are governed by members’ relationships to knowledge for the purpose of knowledge acquisition and transfer. This is unlike interactions on social sites, which are governed by social mores. For this reason, networks on BettrAt are conceived of as interest networks rather than social networks.


Looking around some public high schools, it can be difficult to recognize how very different they are today than they were a hundred years ago. Classrooms are still organized for thirty students in a single grade to sit quietly and listen to lectures or work independently. Schools still sit empty between early June and Labor Day for reasons most people don’t remember. Students still move through grades as if on an invisible assembly line, with most students—just over three-quarters— graduating within four years. For many students— those with ample family resources—this model works well enough. But for many others—mostly low-income minority students—the model fails.

The data is easy to find, the symptoms are recognizable, and the core drivers are well understood. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 33.9% of African-American students and 28.6% of Hispanic students fail to graduate within four years. Many of these students are concentrated in struggling schools. A recent study revealed that 25% of all African-American students and 17% of Hispanic students attend a school where fewer than 60% of students graduate in four years. Student disengagement, chronic absenteeism, and boredom are visible signs that school is increasingly irrelevant for these students.

What is difficult is figuring out what to do about it. One approach is to address the problem with a system-centered point of view. A system-centered approach focuses on the design of new subsystems (such as assessments and curriculum standards) to improve or optimize a problematic aspect of the existing system. This approach has the advantage of attacking the problem at scale with the possibility of improving conditions for a significant number of people. The downside is that this approach is often cumbersome, inflexible, and slow in development. Teachers and administrators frequently struggle to adapt these new subsystems to their own school environments, which slows adoption of even a valuable system innovation, and the rapid pace of change in the school environment means that some system innovations quickly lose impact as the conditions for which they were optimized evolve or erode in unforeseen ways.

An alternative is to design for the parts of the system that are beyond hierarchical control—in other words, to take a human-centered design approach. A key advantage of human-centered design is that its methodology is optimized for rapidly changing contexts and loosely defined problems with ambiguous boundaries, such as are often found in schools. By relying on direct observation and abductive logic, designers can quickly develop fresh insights and solutions and integrate temporal considerations into design strategy.

The core principle behind human-centered design is to empower the people most affected by the problem to solve the problem in ways that make the most sense to them. This approach often results in the design of platforms—modular assemblies of solutions that users can combine in different ways to address a wide array of issues. Such flexibility can be an important driver of user adoption. The downside is that human-centered solutions can be difficult to scale.

In reality, the two approaches need not be mutually exclusive. It can be fruitful to combine the two approaches to exploit the advantages and mitigate the undesirable characteristics of each. The primary purpose of this research was to add a human-centered design approach to an existing system-centered solution, that is, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), to address the problem of low student engagement.

Proposed User Experience

Unlike MOOCs (massive online open courses) and online textbooks, BetterAt/School won’t simply change the mode of content delivery—it will make it easier for teachers (and students themselves) to assess the learning process in real time. BetterAt/School will make it easier for students to plan, execute, and, most importantly, document their learning activities, both inside and outside of school. BetterAt/School apps will make it easy for students to capture their learning wherever they are and instantaneously sync their work with their timelines. Teachers will be able to view student timelines remotely, making it easier to provide feedback at any point in the process, thus enabling students to make each learning activity as productive as possible and simultaneously enabling teachers to clearly see how well each student is working through the learning process—and how effectively they apply what they are learning.


Initial research began back in March of 2007. This PDF captures our thinking at that time.


We learned a lot, and the educational landscape continued to evolve. These PDFs represent our thinking as of 2010.




Ashwat Bhoopathy
Marilee Bowles Carey
Ksenia Pachikov
Emilia Klimiuk
Rebecca Buck
Ishan Bhalla
Jared Bryll
Kareem Hindi
Kevin Denney
Patrick Whitney