Mobile City Science

April 25, 2017

Reflections from Remi, Part 4

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts authored by Remi Kalir, External Evaluator of the Mobile City Science project, and the first about MCS programming facilitated by the New York Hall of Science in Corona, Queens. Read Remi’s previous entries (here and here) about the Digital Youth Network facilitating MCS in Bronzeville, Chicago.

Introducing MCS in Corona, Queens

Located in New York City’s Queens borough, the neighborhood of Corona is a bustling cacophony of culture adjacent to Flushing Meadows, site of the iconic 1964 New York World’s Fair. In a city defined by generations of immigrants from every corner of the globe, Corona is currently both the largest and most densely populated immigrant community in all of New York City. In early March, MCS programming launched in Corona thanks to an established partnership between the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) and Global Science Academy (GSA),* a public high school about two miles from NYSCI’s sprawling campus on the grounds of Flushing Meadows. The partnership between NYSCI and GSA is rooted in the work of Queens 20/20, NYSCI’s initiative to “engage children and families in creative STEM learning, develop resources for teachers and students, build out-of-school STEM opportunities, and support STEM learning for high school and college students.” Under the auspices of Queens 20/20, the ongoing collaboration between NYSCI and GSA was as an ideal testbed for the implementation of MCS in Corona.

Throughout the fall of 2016 while the Digital Youth Network (DYN) was facilitating MCS in Bronzeville, Chicago, NYSCI staff began their planning process with GSA. Andrés Henríquez, MCS Co-PI and NYSCI’s Vice President of STEM Learning in Communities, worked alongside Catherine Cramer, NYSCI’s Senior Program Developer for Science and Technology, and introduced MCS to GSA’s Principal Edwards. Unlike DYN’s implementation of MCS during the school day via a freshman science course at Evergreen Academy, NYSCI and GSA chose to position MCS as an interest-driven, afterschool program for juniors and seniors. A biology educator at GSA, Ms. Atwal, volunteered to coordinate student recruitment and oversee some aspects of the partnership. Similar to implementation in Bronzeville, whereby DYN staff facilitated MCS curricular activities, Anthony Negron, Manager of Digital Programming in NYSCI’s Education department, took the lead role for MCS facilitation at GSA.

During their planning, the New York team – Anthony, Catherine, and Andres from NYSCI, and Principal Edwards and Ms. Atwal from GSA – identified 21 after-school sessions for Tuesday and Saturday afternoons, spanning early March through mid-June. The 14 Tuesday sessions were scheduled for an hour after school, complemented by seven three-hour long sessions for Saturday afternoons. I visited Corona in late March, and observed the third session at GSA on Tuesday, March 28th, as well as the fourth session (and also the first Saturday session) on the afternoon of April 1st.


Visiting Global Science Academy

Having walked up to the fourth floor of a very large and quintessential high school located in the heart of Corona, I was a bit winded when introduced to Principal Edwards. As he welcomed me to GSA, I immediately noticed a button pinned to his blazer: “I Support Immigrant Families.” The sentiment of his button was amplified by signage posted throughout GSA (Images 1-6): “No Human Is Illegal;” “Immigrants get the job done;” “El Pueblo Unido, Jamas Sera Vencido” (the people united will never be defeated).


Images 1-6: Posters supporting immigrant students and their families throughout GSA


GSA is a school-within-a-school, wedged into the upper hallways of a large building that occupies an entire square city block. Having started my career in a New York City public school, there was much that I recognized – uniformed safety officers, cramped hallways, noisy heaters, and the need for a fresh coat of paint. Yet a quick glance around GSA conveys little about the distinctive approach that Principal Edwards and his staff have taken toward curricular design, honoring of student culture, supportive teaching, and transformative learning. Despite appearances to the contrary, GSA is anything but a typical New York City high school.

Founded in 2013, GSA is a public school enrolling approximately 300 students and affiliated with a larger network of international-themed schools primarily (though note exclusively) located in New York City. This network of schools has developed a highly successful model for educating recent immigrant students, many of whom are emerging bilingual learners and have experienced some type of disruption to their formal education (i.e. missing perhaps multiple years of schooling while immigrating to America). To attend GSA, students must have lived in the United States for less than four years prior to their enrollment. GSA students come from 30 home countries and speak 20 different languages. The first graduating class from GSA will walk across commencement stage this June, and every graduating senior has applied to college.

Walking around GSA with Principal Edwards, I heard – more than saw – how language is utilized and celebrated as a valued learning resource for both students and staff. Like Corona, a majority of GSA students are of Hispanic heritage and many students speak Spanish. Bengali is spoken by the second largest group of GSA students. Whether in class or the hallway, students speak their native languages as a means of social support, personal expression, and as a part of academic inquiry. Students also receive regular and high-quality assistance from the school’s paraprofessionals so as to use their developing English language skills to talk, write, and interact with one another. As such, English emerges as a lingua franca among all GSA learners.


MCS Walking Audits

The two sessions I observed at GSA were both related to the MCS curricular activity of walking audits. During walking audits, small groups of learners navigate on foot (or, in some instances, on bike) among predetermined neighborhood locations indicated on a map, and while moving annotate the map with their travelled routes, missing features, inaccuracies, and other notes helpful for wayfinding. Youth might capture digital photographs that can later be incorporated as locative data into designs authored with mapping software. The goal of walking audits is for MCS participants to learn about maps, mapping conventions, and spatial data – all while moving about a familiar locale. Additionally, participants learn that different types of maps highlight, conceal (or blatantly ignore), and display different portrayals of a place, and that such representations convey varied messages about the same place. Not only are walking audits a core curricular feature introducing youth to MCS, similar “walking the neighborhood” experiences are important for adult facilitators when preparing their own place-based and mobile learning activities.


Tuesday Afternoon: Debriefing a Walking Audit

MCS programming at GSA occurs inside an old science classroom that has been converted into the school’s growing makerspace with a row of computers and a few 3D printers. Rather than desks, the classroom features tables arranged in a “U” shape (Image 7). When I entered , most of the 11 youth participants were already present, chatting casually after a full day of school as Anthony and Andres arranged video cameras for data collection (Image 8). It seemed that participation in extracurricular programming was a norm for these youth; as such, Anthony and Andres comfortably transitioned the group into the afternoon’s MCS activities.

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Images 7-8: The MCS classroom at GSA

The first session I observed at GSA was primarily a single, whole-group discussion among the youth debriefing their first “non-tech” walking audit from the previous Tuesday. Anthony facilitated the conversation, and when I asked him later about including a technology-free walking audit followed by an extensive debrief conversation, he mentioned the importance of youth carefully “taking a look at the neighborhood.” The novelty of mobile technologies like GoPro cameras and Garmin GPS devices might distract youth from making their first nuanced observations of everyday places. When adapting MCS curricular activities to their Corona context, the NYSCI team sought to create additional opportunities to “scaffold the experience more before they [youth] jump into the project.”


Scaffolding MCS meant ample opportunity for youth to share and discuss their non-tech walking audit around Corona, and Anthony structured this debrief via questions about place and data:

  1. What did you observe?

  2. What type of data could you collect? How would you collect that data?

  3. What would be your next steps based on the data you collected? (Image 9)


In response to Anthony’s questions, students first wrote their individual responses on notecards (Images 10-12). These individual responses became rich points of reference for participants’ subsequent conversation about Corona.





Images 9-12: Debrief questions to reflect on non-tech walking audit and sample responses

While walking about Corona, MCS youth had observed local landmarks, public libraries, construction sites, and congested traffic. These observations also included people’s everyday activities – such as commuting, shopping, socializing, and playing – as were patterns like “same people, same things,” “some of the houses are alike or so similar,” and the regularity of public transportation (i.e. frequency of buses along certain routes). When asked about the type of data they might collect during a future community investigation, one GSA student noted: “Anything that catches my attention. I’ll look at it, and I’ll catch that data in my mind.” Another referenced census-like activities, indicating an interest in determining “how many buildings [are in the area] and the amount of people they can hold.” And when Anthony inquired about the types of tools students would use to collect that data, the first response was an enthusiastic “memory!” This student went on to mention notes, videos, and pictures; however, it was unclear if “memory” referred to the faculty of his mind or the affordance of a digital device (perhaps both?).

During this discussion, Anthony routinely emphasized to GSA students that “we’re researchers.” By participating in MCS, GSA students were joining a larger community of citizen scientists, including prior MCS youth from Chicago and other participants in NYSCI educational programs. The agency of youth as researchers resonated in GSA students’ responses to the question about “next steps” following community-based data collection. Youth would use their data and “present to my neighbor” or the “owners of [the] building.” Others suggested they “would use mathematical process to show my data,” and that such data could be used to “analyze changes in a project.” Throughout this debrief about place and data, I was impressed by the ways in which MCS participants repeatedly drew upon established GSA norms for rich discussion (i.e. sharing responses, active listening, building upon one another's’ ideas), as well as disciplinary terminology taught in their STEM courses: (i.e. “make predictions,” “constant rate of change”).


Saturday Afternoon: Thematic Walking Audit

I returned to GSA on April 1st, a blustering Saturday afternoon with overcast skies. Thankfully, days of near-constant rain had blown over, and so despite the cold it would be possible for Anthony, Catherine, and Andres to facilitate a thematic walking audit with GSA students. Originally scheduled for three hours, I learned the session would only last two given coordination with school security (as the first Saturday MCS session, NYSCI and GSA were still working out a few logistics kinks). Nonetheless, the session would address two primary goals. First, participants would be introduced to their MCS backpacks and the many digital and analog tools they would subsequently use throughout the curriculum. Second, they would participate in a walking audit, using various tools to capture media and notes about three locations associated with a theme. I arrived at GSA shortly before noon, and found the school quite active for a Saturday. Principal Edwards was supervising multiple extracurricular programs, and I learned from him that such voluntary activities are quite popular with GSA students. As the session began, he brought over a large container of extra lunches from other activities in case MCS participants had yet to eat.

Perhaps because this was the first Saturday session, only six of the 11 students were in attendance. As with Tuesday, Anthony easily transitioned the group into the day’s activities. Working in pairs, GSA students received a MCS backpack and began to examine various tools. As they unpacked their GoPro cameras, Garmin GPS devices, micro SD cards, and other tools to record and store data, Anthony facilitated a discussion about “best practices” for data collection with various devices. For example, because participants would be wearing a GoPro camera on their head or chest, it was important that they attend to hand movements (so as not to obscure a recording) and their body position in relation to other people and points of interest.

After familiarizing themselves with data collection tools, MSC participants began to plan their community walking audit. Anthony, Catherine, and Andres had identified four themes pertinent to both youth interests and Corona that would guide the afternoon’s walking audit: learning opportunities, physical health, transportation, and job opportunities (Image 13). The three student pairs selected one of these themes, identified three locations around Corona related to their chosen theme, and then drew a map indicating how they would travel from GSA to their locations (Images 14 and 15). Two pairs of MCS youth chose to investigate physical health around Corona, and one pair selected the theme of transportation.


Images 13-15: Community themes for walking audit and participant maps to plan and guide investigation of themes


The team investigating transportation departed GSA accompanied by Catherine, one of the physical health teams was joined by both Andres and Principal Edwards, and I tagged alongside Anthony and the second team exploring physical health (Images 16-18). During the next hour, my team walked to a health clinic and nextdoor pharmacy, a dental office, and a pediatrician’s office. The fact that most of these offices or businesses were closed on a Saturday afternoon did not deter MCS participants from capturing digital artifacts and taking substantive notes. Moreover, our entire walking audit featured rich discussion about a variety of issues related to health and wellbeing, such as affordability ("if there are few clinics, cost is really high"), religion and culture, access to healthy and affordable food, and the proximity of health services to public transportation. A closed clinic prompted both students to speculate on the limitations of access, as "maybe people need medicine at various times." The youth also noted the importance of culture in medical care, and commented disapprovingly about a local hospital “where you need translation every 15 minutes." And as concerns the relationship of healthcare to transportation, while it could be "odd to see medical centers in residential areas," that happens a lot in Corona, and "a lot of medical centers [are] near the subway station." The thematic walking audit effectively introduced MCS youth to mobile device use and demonstrated how these tools could afford place-based data collection. Moreover, the activity helped develop youth interest in local issues as frames for continued data collection and (counter) mapping activities, particularly given the fact that two different teams selected physical health.


Images 16-18: MCS youth participating in thematic walking audit

Brief Concluding Questions

It’s been a few weeks since I returned from New York City and my visit to GSA and NYSCI. As I reflect upon my observations, and consider my responsibilities evaluating this phase of the broader MCS project, I would like to close this blog post with some questions that I hope are useful to both MCS facilitators and researchers, as well as others interested in place-based and mobile learning:

  • How does the facilitation of mobile learning honor youth interest and also draw upon language and culture?

  • How do mobile learning curricula like MCS leverage participants’ language and cultural practices as valued resources alongside digital devices and associated media practices?

  • How are youth language and cultural uniquely beneficial resources to the development of techno-civic literacies?

  • How does the collaboration between NYSCI and GSA, which is rooted in the broader Queens 2020 effort, help support the everyday STEM practices that are central to MCS implementation?

*Global Science Academy (GSA) and the names of its staff and students are pseudonyms.