Adding empowerment to place-based tech
Taylor noted similarities between Mobile City Science and another recent “place-based” technology—Pokémon Go. In Pokémon Go, players look for virtual beings hidden in the real landscape. With MCS—funded by the National Science Foundation—students have the power to create representations of their neighborhoods, based on their own unique perspective, that can live in the virtual world to be discovered and used by others.
“We emphasized the themes of transportation, health and safety,” said Andrés Henriquez, New York Hall of Science’s vice president of STEM learning. “One group went to places they felt were good exemplars of health, like a fitness center and a hospital. Another focused on transportation, highlighting bus routes in Queens. Another focused on places that made them feel safe, like the school and their church.”
In Bronzeville, the young people explored local history. “One group went to a church near their high school and talked with the pastor,” said Elaina Boytor, DYN’s learning experience researcher. “One went to an assisted living facility. Another group went to a neighborhood mosque.”
While they were there, Boytor said the kids learned the mosque was personally founded by former boxer and philanthropist Mohammed Ali—an interesting historical fact they were able to embed in their maps for others to discover.
Learning to advocate
Both pilots culminated in community meetings where students were able to present their findings—complete with compelling, well-documented data—to local stakeholders. In Bronzeville, that group included police officers, aldermen and pastors. Gray said the students advocated for things like a mall, a dance studio and places for employment.
“The question we put to the students was ‘what would make you stay in this community?’” said Tené Gray, DYN’s partnership development manager. “Mobile City Science helped them think about themselves as people with the ability to create maps and use those maps to set an agenda and advocate for something.”
“What was interesting for us was how sophisticated young people were about what data is,” Henriquez said. “And how you can collect it as a powerful tool for making a point and potentially to change things.”
Besides creating a real shift in the way the students looked at their communities—and their role in it as agents for change—Mobile City Science has had other impacts in those communities, including development of bike lanes and an offer of volunteer opportunities for students at a local church.
“Also as a result of the presentation, one of the alderman is thinking about creating a youth council,” Gray said. “And he’s interested in having our ninth graders who participated be a part of it.”
“Planners were more surprised than anybody,” Taylor said. “Youth were not only learning how to collect data, but also thinking about and analyzing the patterns that they saw in it, with really diverse perspectives—including infrastructure issues that were constraining their daily lives.”
“I think the principals saw this as an opportunity for young people not only to get out into the community, but to also acquire a set of skills they may not get at school,” Gray said. “They were excited about the students being able to use these tools, to understand and create maps, and to articulate ideas about the community itself—because the school is situated in the community.”