Mobile City Science

November 18, 2016

Reflections from Remi, Part 1












This is the first in a series of blog posts authored by Remi Kalir, External Evaluator of the Mobile City Science project, to communicate project progress and reflect upon related questions of design, learning, mobility, and place.
This post is my first public contribution to the Mobile City Science (MCS) project via the Counter Mobilities blog. If you are just learning about MCS or visiting this blog for the first time, here’s some useful background information: MCS is a research partnership among University of Washington learning scientists, the Digital Youth Network (DYN), and the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) to study how groups of youth in Bronzeville, Chicago and Corona, Queens collect data about and map their communities using mobile and location aware technologies, and how these data can subsequently support educators to better understand the places where youth live and learn. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the MCS Youth Mapping Community Learning Opportunities project aligns well with ongoing efforts by both DYN and NYSCI to strengthen connections among schools, community organizations, and civic institutions, while amplifying youth capacity to document and advocate for city-wide learning opportunities. The MCS curriculum – which features activities for youth data collection, data analysis, and spatial argumentation spanning eight to ten weeks – will be implemented twice throughout the 2016-17 academic school year; first in Bronzeville by DYN (in November, December, and January) and then in Corona by NYSCI (likely February, March, and April). The integration of MCS curricula in DYN and NYSCI programming builds upon related work by project PI Dr. Katie Headrick Taylor, such as her prior research on youth counter-mapping during a social design experiment for spatial justice. The MCS Bronzeville and Corona implementations are possible because of a week-long training at the University of Washington in Seattle, during which time DYN and NYSCI staff participated in MCS activities and developed their own familiarity with walking audits, geocaching, GPS drawing, and asset mapping.


Given this context, I’m going to share briefly about who I am and why I’m writing these blog posts. Aside from my role as External Evaluator of the MCS project, my day job is as an assistant professor of Information and Learning Technologies at the University of Colorado Denver where I research and design educator learning associated with everyday digital media practices. My familiarity with place-based and mobile learning can be traced back to the University of Wisconsin’s Games Learning Society Center, where I was a research assistant and facilitator of educators’ playful learning during my doctoral studies. For a number of years, I was involved with GLS’ now-defunct Local Games Lab, a group that experimented with augmented reality design, mobile game play, and related educator professional learning (and fun fact – various research teams involved in these projects authored two books about mobile media learning and mobile innovation and inspiration available for free from ETC Press).  


As the MCS External Evaluator I’m able to play multiple roles in relation to the various partners and the project as a whole. For example, I’ll serve as somewhat of a public historian, translating project activities and research findings to different audiences, whether the National Science Foundation or readers of this blog. I am also tasked with describing MCS curricular iterations over time, and analyzing how such changes indicate an emerging sociotechnical “genre” of learning at the intersection of mobile technologies, city science, and design practices that support youth civic literacy and community-based learning. Among my formal responsibilities, I’ll also advance a formative approach to evaluation (as evidenced by this series of blog posts), allowing me to ask questions that help to unpack implementation assumptions and articulate MCS’ guiding theory of action. Accordingly, the remainder of this posts identifies two questions that are beginning to define the early stages of the project. Each question is accompanied by some brief thoughts that may be generative for project facilitators, researchers, and readers who are interested in mapping, mobility, and learning.


How will commitments to youth interest-driven inquiry be honored and managed?

The Seattle training was expertly designed and facilitated by Dr. Taylor and her team to showcase how MCS activities like walking audits, geocaches, and asset mapping could support deep inquiry into a pressing local issue: the transformation and gentrification of the University of Washington’s “U District” amidst new “upzoning” building codes, increased public transportation options, and the loss of “mom and pop” shops to national, name-brand retailers. As much as we found our experience learning about this topic illustrative, meaningful, and – at times – infuriating, on a number of occasions DYN and NYSCI staff noted a tension between facilitator-selected and youth interest-driven areas of inquiry. How much should staff pre-plan specific topics? If such planning identifies pressing community issues, will those topics be of interest to youth participants? And how will stakeholder engagement inform (and perhaps shift) youth interest in particular issues, whether prior to, during, or even after MCS participation? For example, during the Seattle training a NYSCI staff member asked, “What are the relevant issues in Corona?” Weeks later, during a project check-in, this same staff member reported on some “community walks” conducted as part of NYSCI’s planning, and recalled a question she and colleague asked during this walk: “How far do you have to walk to get an apple?” The issue of access to healthy and affordable food appears to be a concern, but would this also be a salient topic for youth’s interest-driven inquiry during MCS? As DYN implementation has only begun, this broader tension persists unresolved; as such, it will be necessary to carefully document how both sites honor and build upon youth interest throughout all aspects of the MCS curriculum.

[As a related aside, a decade ago I helped facilitate youth participation in community-based food audits throughout New York City’s five boroughs, mapping so-called food deserts, measuring indicators of food availability and access, and helping youth use this data to advocate for the creation of the Green Carts initiative. Despite success, there are no Green Carts selling only fresh fruits and vegetables in Corona, Queens.]

How will curricular resources be adapted to meet local needs and contingencies?

MCS was developed primarily in out-of-school and less formal learning environments. Both DYN and NYSCI are partnering with schools in Bronzeville and in Corona, respectively, to implement their version of MCS. Because MCS draws upon and reflects the strengths, challenges, and distinctive features of a given locale, there are one set of challenges when adapting this curriculum from one setting to another. During the Seattle training, issues such as the density of businesses and civic services within specific neighborhoods, relevance of local issues to youth, the accessibility of transportation infrastructure, and weather were among the contingencies DYN and NYSCI staff sought to proactively manage. Moreover, the integration of MCS into the formal constraints of schooling present yet another set of challenges. In anticipation of implementation, both DYN and NYSCI staff have established trusting relationships with school leadership and classroom teachers, sequenced MCS activities within bell schedules and after-school programming, and created site-specific solutions to emergent challenges. For example, DYN staff have created “stations” (a routine approach to structured classroom activity) associated with youth’s research tasks, use of mobile technologies (i.e. GoPro and Garmin devices), and equipment management to more efficiently organize and launch community-based fieldwork. The flexibility of MCS activity structures is, without a doubt, a strength of the designed curriculum. However, it will also be necessary to carefully document curricular adaptations and local problem-solving efforts throughout both implementation cycles.

– Remi Kalir, External Evaluator