Mobile City Science Go!

A place-based technology curriculum is helping underserved kids put themselves on the map


Ever seen a teen hunched over a mobile phone, isolated, out of reach, and sedentary?

College of Education Assistant Professor Katie Headrick Taylor’s innovative Mobile City Science (MCS) curriculum has demonstrated a powerful way to turn that all-too-common scenario on its head.

“We often hear about technology isolating or siloing people,” Taylor said. “The question is, how can you get people—particularly young people—reinvested in their community? How can we turn the technology kids use into a bridge instead of a wall? How can we capitalize on the digital literacy kids already have?”

In two recent pilots, Taylor partnered with in-school programs run cooperatively with the New York Hall of Science in Queens and the Digital Youth Network (DYN) in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood—and found some compelling answers to those questions.

In both cities, groups of middle and high school students, many of them immigrants and nearly all from underserved communities, were equipped with wearable cameras, Google maps, and GPS and mapping tools.

“Users of these tools can easily map community assets—or the lack of them,” Taylor said. These might include things like libraries, community centers or community gardens.

During a six-week intensive experience, the kids were invited to think of themselves as researchers, go on local walking tours, and create custom maps highlighting discoveries in their neighborhoods that were most important to them—both things that existed, and things they wished existed, such as bike lanes to help them get to school more safely.

Imagining the future

Professor Katie Headrick Taylor, research assistant Deborah Silvis and partners with the Digital Youth Network discuss how educators and students can use mobile and location-aware technologies to map community assets for learning and engage youth in addressing community issues of interest to them.

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.”

High engagement

“Any time kids can wrap cameras around their heads and see images of where they’ve gone it’s always engaging—super engaging,” Henriquez said. “But the point is not just the engagement. It’s what they learn and what they can do with it.”

“Young people are highly interested in how these mapping technologies function,” Taylor said. “They like trying to understand what’s behind the representational infrastructure—how these technologies are producing novel and yet accurate maps of what they’re interested in. That’s been really engaging for them, being able to use these new tools to shed light on new issues.

“Now they’re starting to think about things like the rapid changes in their neighborhoods. They’re not just becoming documentarians. They’re also thinking about change as part of their citizenship. They’re asking how they as young people are represented in that change—or not represented.”

Into the future

Taylor said the big picture, for her, is to empower educators in a wide range of settings to help young people use the technology skills they possess to reimagine their communities.

“We are really interested in using MCS across various community educational settings. How can we use MCS to investigate what learning looks like in a museum? How do we use MCS in a library with families? Or in professional settings like a lab or maker space?”

At the UW, Taylor and graduate students Deborah Silvis and Adam Bell have incorporated the design features of MCS in a required undergraduate education class this fall. Taylor is also seeking funding to work with youth in after-school settings in Seattle’s Rainier Valley, an underserved part of the city undergoing rapid change.

“Communities that are often overlooked, and overlooked stakeholders like young people, should have access to tools and should be able to take part,” Henriquez said. “We’re hoping to shift the way people think about smart and connected cities—so it’s not just engineers planning things for people, but having the people themselves involved in the work.”

“We asked kids to imagine the futures of the places they live,” Taylor said. “I really believe that the learning young people do—that all people do—should contribute to the social and ecological well-being of themselves and their communities.”

  • Youth work collaboratively to map community assets and needs.

  • Youth conduct local walking tours and create custom maps of their neighborhoods in Mobile City Science.

  • Using wearable cameras, Google maps, and GPS and mapping tools, youth map community assets and needs.

  • Mobile City Science enables youth to collect and use data to advocate for change.

Navigating the “rich tension” of partnership

Taylor said one interesting aspect of Mobile City Science is how the agendas of her partners—and the kids themselves—impact her own research agenda.

“As researchers we’re really interested in particular questions,” she explained. “Then we see the facilitators doing adaptations because they’re interested in something they see happening. And the kids have their own objectives and are pushing on the facilitators. We’re always thinking about how we can support all of those different objectives.”

“Like Katie puts it, do what you need to do to make it work,” Henriquez said. “She’s super open about that. It’s like open courseware—do what you need to do to be able to make it work within your context. She’s a very thoughtful partner. And the concept she’s developed is very, very interesting.”

“Of course, that’s really hard to do,” Taylor said. “You have to put a stake in the ground somewhere. To me, the things that are less negotiable are the youth-driven interests that emerge from Mobile City Science. If kids are really engaging around some issue like mobility, or food deserts, or lack of community centers—then that’s something we really need to pay attention to.

“Institutions like Digital Youth Network and the New York Hall of Science also have their own programmatic objectives that can’t always be youth-driven—which is also really interesting to me. I think those tensions offer really rich, collaborative design opportunities. It’s complicated, but it’s also super fun and interesting.”