Mobile City Science

January 3, 2017

Reflections from Remi, Part 2

This is the second in a series of blog posts authored by Remi Kalir, External Evaluator of the Mobile City Science project. The first post – which provides context about MCS and Remi’s role, as well as some guiding questions about project implementation – can be read here. A big thank you to DYN staff for providing helpful feedback on the writing of this post.


A Sketch of MCS

Bronzeville, Chicago: “What’s the temperature out here?” I’m standing among nine high school freshman and four adults, including Principal Lawrence and a staff member from Evergreen Academy, as well as Tené Gray and Jim Sandherr who are Digital Youth Network (DYN) educators.* We’re a block away from Evergreen at a small park. I’ve tagged along with this group from a freshman science class that is participating in the Mobile City Science (MCS) curriculum. Another six students, with two other educators from DYN, are across the street from Evergreen in a large parking lot. The student, Bryant, who asks me about the temperature is cold – hands deep in his pockets, hoodie on, he’s eager to start walking around again to warm up. I pull out my phone and confirm that yes, indeed, it’s pretty cold – a brisk 37 degrees on a cloudy morning. Perhaps none of us should be surprised; it is December in Chicago.


After a few brief instructions from Tené, the nine students break into four groups and begin a GPS drawing activity (Figure 1). Within each group, students activate handheld Garmin GPS devices, reference paper maps to walk pre-planned patterns around the park, and consult both tools and one another to record location-specific digital pathways of their drawings. As DYN implements MCS in partnership with Evergreen, this place-based curriculum has adapted to explore three themes pertinent to Bronzeville – change, diversity, and uniqueness. Student drafts of their GPS drawings are symbols that represent these themes – a cross, heart, spiral, crown (Bryant’s drawing), the letter “E” (for everyone), the letter “P” (for peace), and a circle with three arrow symbols (Figure 2).



Figure 1: Groups of Evergreen freshman participating in GPS drawing activities at a park.





Figure 2: Student drafts of GPS drawing activity, with yellow sticky-notes added to identify the symbol and/or corresponding theme.


I follow one group, and then another around the park, taking photographs, listening to their conversations, jotting observations in my notebook. After about ten minutes, three groups have finished their GPS drawings and pair up with an adult to return to Evergreen. In the park’s center, near a large tree, two young women continue to walk, a concentrated focus guiding their steps, intent on accurately capturing their drawing via a GPS route. This is, I come to learn, their third attempt to create an elaborate spiral originating from the tree and featuring multiple concentric loops (Figure 3). Jim, a DYN educator, and I watch their technology-enhanced walking-as-drawing. When they finish, and turn back toward Evergreen, the two young women smile beneath their large jacket hoods and celebrate with an enthusiastic high five.



Figure 3: Detail of spiral pattern as “unique” symbol for GPS drawing activity.


My Visit to Bronzeville

I recently visited with DYN staff and observed their implementation of the MCS curriculum at Evergreen Academy, a high school in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. Unlike a more traditional and comprehensive secondary school, Evergreen is a high school with strong community connections. Approximately 200 students attend Evergreen, a school defined as much by a distinctive arts- and technology-infused curriculum as it is by the architecture of its facility. To describe the social and physical aesthetic at Evergreen as unique would be an understatement.


My two-day visit with DYN included multiple opportunities to observe and learn more about the MCS curriculum as implemented in Evergreen and the Bronzeville neighborhood. Specifically, I was able to: a) serve as a participant observer during two MCS sessions in first period freshman science at Evergreen; b) engage DYN educators during two debriefs that followed both sessions at Evergreen; c) conduct an interview with Evergreen’s Principal Lawrence; and d) attend a DYN staff meeting about the scope of their partnership with Evergreen, DYN’s work throughout Bronzeville, and the role that place-based curricula like MCS can play – in the words of DYN’s Caitlin Martin – in helping them “to study a hyperlocal environment” and “to partner with community organizations.”


The purpose of this post is to identify and describe three areas of adaptation that are defining the implementation of MCS in the context of a school-community organization-research partnership. This “first take” is meant to provide a useful sketch in the hopes of sparking subsequent conversation, analysis, and reflection among everyone involved in the MCS project. Additionally, this list of adaptations is one response to a question raised in my first post for this Counter Mobilities blog, “How will curricular resources be adapted to meet local needs and contingencies?” My recent participant observations, interviews, and fieldnotes suggest it is pertinent to understand how DYN is simultaneously adapting MCS across three different levels of activity, from more macro school relations, to the level of the curriculum, to more micro-level individual and group practices. First, DYN is adapting MCS to a formal school context, and one that is quite unique given the partnership with Evergreen. Second, DYN is adapting curricular structures and activities for more meaningful implementation. And third, DYN educators are adapting their professional practices of planning and facilitation.


Adapting to a Formal School Context

MCS has primarily been developed for, implemented in, and researched across less formal and out-of-school contexts. Much of what may be assumed about activity in such interest-driven learning environments – from participation incentives to the more flexible use and amount of time – are not necessarily a given in formal school contexts. At Evergreen, multiple dynamics well beyond the singular control of the school, or the school’s staff, or the students have collided in a challenging mix of unpredictability and improvisation. The following circumstances are defining this first adaptation of MCS to a formal school context:


  • Most Evergreen students do not live in Bronzeville and commute from surrounding Southside neighborhoods to attend school. The freshman participating in MCS are new to Bronzeville within just the past few months and, as such, are less familiar with this neighborhood than with the many communities within which they live. Commuting to Evergreen also impacts student attendance patterns.

  • Principal Lawrence identified a freshman science class as a promising context to implement the MCS curriculum. This class began the school year with a substitute teacher, who was subsequently replaced by a full-time educator, who has since also left and been replaced by Mr. Curtis, a long-term substitute. This turnover has made it difficult to establish effective classroom norms or a robust and routine science curriculum. Amidst this dynamic environment, DYN educators have embraced the opportunity to provide a consistent and structured academic experience during these students’ first period of their first year in high school.

  • In other contexts, MCS activities might be perceived as an attractive alternative to a more routine freshman science course (i.e. lecture- and textbook-based learning). At Evergreen, DYN educators have an impression that students perceive MCS as “school” given that, in this context, there is no regular science curriculum.

  • MCS is scheduled for three days of the week (Tuesday through Thursday mornings), with DYN educators and Principal Lawrence noting a disconnect between this programming and classroom activities on Mondays and Fridays. It has been suggested that DYN create complementary programming and/or resources that connect activities throughout the week and provide Evergreen students with more responsibility over their learning. Doing so might further establish MCS as the de facto science curriculum for this class. Mr. Curtis, for example, likes that MCS is “interactive” and build students’ technology skills.

  • The scheduling of MCS during the school day’s first period is problematic for consistent student attendance.

  • As is the case with many high schools, tardy student arrivals often interfere with first period class time. MCS introductory discussions at the beginning of class are problematic since not everyone is present, resulting in repeated instructions, and frequent regrouping of students based on when they arrive and what they have done.


Adapting Curricular Structures and Activities

The MCS curriculum is defined by a collection of mobile and place-based learning activities, including walking audits, geocaches, GPS drawing, asset mapping, counter-mapping, and youth-led design charrettes. As Tené told me, all MCS activities have been “heavily adapted to this context” (i.e. Evergreen) through the creation of multiple lesson plans by Elaina Boytor, Caitlin, and Tené through iterative cycles of unit sequencing and lesson planning, modification, critique, and revision. Many of the aforementioned activities – like geocaching and GPS drawing – have become stand-alone “units,” with up to three class session “lessons” aligned to a given unit. DYN’s lesson plans – which build upon the organization’s existing resources and staff expertise – are all pages long, and include details about equipment, set up, facilitation goals and instructions, and transitions among different stages of the lesson, as well as notes about how data will be collected and archived for researchers at the University of Washington. Although not unlike previous efforts by DYN to implement programming in local schools, MCS has required a substantial effort “breaking down” activities given both the previously noted school-level constraints and the conceptual features of some MCS activities (like creating a symbol to represent a theme that students will walk as a GPS drawing).


DYN staff have also created many original student handouts, activity scaffolds, and facilitation routines to ensure the successful implementation of MCS. For example, during my first day at Evergreen I observed a series of small group discussions designed in response to Tené and Elaina’s concern that students needed to better synthesize their prior experiences investigating throughout Bronzeville with their data and the focal themes of change, diversity, and uniqueness. Elaina had created a poster-size matrix that prompted youth in each of three groups to connect what they “heard,” “saw,” and “felt” during community-based activities with their selected themes. DYN educators were also attentive to facilitation strategies that would successfully support students in voicing connections among their experiences, data, and themes. For example, during the small group discussion that generated information for these posters, Dimress, another DYN educator, drew upon her deep knowledge of local Chicago neighborhoods and an encouraging demeanor to elicit from students substantive comments about crime rates, business development, and gentrification in historically black neighborhoods (Figure 4).



Figure 4: Matrix developed by DYN staff to help youth synthesize among their experiences with place-based investigations, data, and focal themes.


The adaptation of MCS curricular structures and activities is an iterative process that continues to focus active partnering between DYN and Evergreen. In my conversation with Principal Lawrence, I learned of efforts to make MCS more culturally relevant, to establish more “immediate” connections to student interests, and to provide more frequent opportunity for students to “see the outcomes” of their participation. These suggestions extend Principal Lawrence’s involvement shaping curricular adaptation, her guidance in the creation of complementary activities for Monday and Fridays, and her hands-on assistance during class sessions (for example, she participated in GPS drawing as noted in my opening vignette). In addition, and given the expertise of DYN’s team, there are ongoing efforts to possibly pair MCS activities with blogging, video production, and other creative outputs. According to Tené, this may provide students occasion to use both MCS technology and data as a means of reflecting “on the bigger picture.”


Adapting Practices as Educators

DYN educators like Tené, Elaina, Dimress, and Jim are routinely adapting their individual and group practices to both implement MCS while meeting the needs of Evergreen students. I noticed that DYN staff carefully attended to two categories of professional practice: a) planning and b) facilitation.


In regards to planning, DYN has taken advantage of individual team members’ specialized skill sets to launch MCS. Tené is a former Chicago Public Schools educator with years of professional development and facilitation experience at DYN. Dimress and Jim have experience facilitating out-of-school learning experiences, and Elaina and Jim have served in formal research capacities during other DYN projects. And in addition to the fact that all DYN staff are rather tech savvy, Tené, Caitlin, and Jim have substantial curriculum development experience in both school-based and informal settings. This breadth of experience results, as I observed, in many impromptu and productive moments, such as when Jim and Elaina realized it would be useful to document – for their own team – the correct microphone and digital audio recorder settings in order to more efficiently prep students and leave the classroom (Figure 5). When I later asked Jim about this moment, he noted that “it [MCS technology] requires a lot of different literacies” that educators need to know well in order to subsequently support students.



Figure 5: Elaina and Jim document correct equipment settings prior to GPS mapping outdoors (note their hats and layers!).


I also learned that Elaina had reorganized MCS equipment as the initial backpack-per-student plan (with each backpack containing one of every device for a set roster of students) was a mismatch with Evergreen’s inconsistent student attendance. The resulting system features backpacks that contain one type of each device (i.e. a backpack for Garmins, a backpack for audio recorders). To further aid their planning, DYN purchased large bins and set up an itemized system separating into categories various drawing, educator research, and student learning materials, and then reorganizing the system as implementation progressed (Figure 6).



Figure 6: Reorganization of MCS equipment and materials for both implementation and research.


Another important planning feature has been DYN’s creation of device-specific stations. This setup is a time-saving practice that eases students into particular roles, allows for smoother check-out and check-in of equipment by device type, assigns responsibility of one device to one student for fieldwork, and distributes technical know-how amongst the facilitation team (if an educator is less proficient with a particular device they can then assist students at a different station; Figures 7 and 8).



Figure 7: Garmin station prepped for student participation in GPS drawing activity.



Figure 8: GoPro station prepped for student participation in GPS drawing activity.


Finally, DYN educators are regularly adapting their facilitation practices, both in-the-moment and also upon reflection. On my second day at Evergreen I wrote the following in my notebook, “There’s a lot of improvisation despite all the detailed planning because of who has arrived by 9:15.” In this instance, Tené, Elaina, Dimress, and Jim were organizing and reorganizing on-the-fly about a dozen students into groups based upon both their participation in the previous day’s preparation for GPS drawing and also their prior experience using certain devices during MCS activities. While the class did successfully participate in GPS drawing, as noted in my opening vignette, this example speaks to broader (and perhaps unavoidable) tensions between preparation and implementation, and between intended design and enacted activity. In one of our debriefs, Tené emphasized the need for ongoing and iterative planning and professional development to address emergent problems and design working solutions, including lesson planning, the creation of complementary resources, and a review of facilitation strategies. Despite their experience, DYN educators find themselves in a situation akin to that of more novice educators engaging with new students, at a new school, while trying out a new curriculum for the very first time. This is challenging and rewarding work for DYN educators whose short-term facilitation of MCS is also the piloting of longer-term relationship-building with Evergreen and the Bronzeville neighborhood.


*Except for the organization Digital Youth Network (DYN) and their staff (who agreed to be identified), all names in this post – such as Evergreen Academy, its staff and its students – are pseudonyms.