New Youth City Learning Network: Creating a New Vision for Out-of-School Learning


9.30.10 | With scientists, designers and educators from some of the city’s cultural institutions serving as mentors, teens in New York City this summer learned to see their neighborhoods in a new light.

Behind the Research

Whether using smartphones to monitor pollution or to uncover the biodiversity underfoot, or designing a translation kiosk or an incentive program for residents to recycle, the teens were following their interests to new levels of engagement—all as part of the New Youth City Learning Network.

The NYCLN is promoting a new form of collaboration among New York City cultural institutions that do the vital work of extending learning beyond the classroom. Rather than a “build it and they will come” approach to youth programming, the NYCLN is encouraging these institutions to start where kids are at—because kids learn best when they follow their own noses. NYCLN is creating a platform that helps youth explore their own interests and, at the same time, taps the insight and mentoring skills of the city’s leading scientists, designers and artists.

“In the learning network, kids and their interests are helping us shape a collaborative institutional space,” says Ingrid Erickson, executive director of NYCLN.

Digital Media Helps Empower Citizen Scientists

Urban Biodiversity Network project at the Bronx Zoo.

This summer, a prototype of what this collaborative space might look like got a trial run. At its center was digital media. In one project, for example, the American Museum of Natural History, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo and Global Kids collaborated on an Urban Biodiversity Network. Kids used Nexus One smartphones to discover the biological life that is teeming on the very streets where they live.

“One of the goals of the project was to use these ubiquitous technologies to engage kids and inspire them to look at nature around them,” says Steve Gano, director for education and digital media at the American Museum of Natural History. The hope, he adds, is that kids “become curious to the point where they might not need the technology to look at, observe and record nature.”

Before participants hit the streets with phones in hand, the museum’s biodiversity team mapped the local neighborhoods and set up data stations where the kids could record their findings. Arriving at the various stations, the kids used smartphones to count the number of pollinates, detail the different species on site, and answer questions like: Where did this leaf litter come from? Or, how did bees get to the neighborhood?

Teens recorded additional data and documentation with photos, videos and audio notes and uploaded the media to an online social network called iRemix for later access. Then they used iRemix to blog about their discoveries and to comment on posts, or view all of the collected observations on a Google map and timeline. Combining digital tools and physical experiences is a hallmark of the Urban Biodiversity Network project and exemplifies one of the key goals of NYCLN—to leverage new media to create new types of learning experiences beyond the walls of the classroom, or even the museum.

Kids constructing their own pollution sensors.

It was this easy intermingling of the digital and physical that Chris Lawrence of the New York Hall of Science found so fascinating. Lawrence, director of formal and informal teaching and learning, co-organized the C3 Pollution Patrol (the three Cs stand for Collect, Construct and Change), a collaboration among the Hall of Science, Bank Street College of Education, the Parsons New School for Design, and City Lore, a nonprofit group focused on New York’s cultural heritage. The Patrol used sophisticated sensors hooked up to smartphones to read noise pollution, carbon monoxide and particulate matter in the Queens neighborhoods near the Hall of Science.

“The kids got really activated by vehicle exhaust,” Lawrence says. “By vehicles idling.”

So much so that,  after using smartphones to collect data on carbon monoxide levels, they looked at their streets in a new way. In fact, what they were seeing were pollution levels overlaid on maps of their neighborhoods—data made available thanks to an augmented reality app called Layar.

The teams then created an awareness campaign against idling vehicle pollution. One group produced a public service announcement video; another constructed flyers and posters; a third mocked up an exhibit for the Hall of Science to demonstrate the findings; and the fourth group created a comic book about inconsiderate elves whose pollution levels were harming the resident unicorns.

Throughout the project, the C3 classroom brimmed with computers, cell phones and scanners—and also with glitter, glue and construction paper.

“It was interesting from an educational and research lens to see the ability of the kids to go back and forth between media to complete a task,” Lawrence says. “They made no distinctions when going from analog to digital.”

Thinking Like a Designer

Another project tuned into the kids’ desires to be “citizen designers.” The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the New York Public Library and DreamYard Project, an arts high school and after-school program in the South Bronx, teamed up to run a new version of the national Cooper-Hewitt program, A City of Neighborhoods. The mentors introduced participants to the principles of design and grounded them in the history of their neighborhoods. Armed with mobile phones, Flip video cameras and iPads, the kids constructed their own innovative solutions to some of the challenges they identified in their communities.

One group, for example, created the Navaway, a kiosk for the intersection of Little Italy and Chinatown in Lower Manhattan. Perhaps nowhere in the city are so many different languages spoken. Recognizing this, the kids developed a prototype for a center that would translate news, directions and other useful information into a variety of languages.

Another group worked on a new recycling and sanitation system. The city’s residents would be rewarded with a coupon or ticket every time they recycled a piece of plastic, glass or other materials. The tickets could later be redeemed for prizes – like a green-minded Boardwalk arcade.

This system “incentivizes people in the community to pick up after themselves,” says Monica Valente Harriss, youth programs manager at Cooper-Hewitt. “It’s a clever idea.”

Prototype for a re-envisioning of the NYC bus.

A third group working on transportation issues developed a bus and street-cleaning hybrid vehicle with a rooftop garden. The water that would be used to nourish the garden’s bounty would later be recycled to wash the bus.

Tim Lord, co-executive director of DreamYard, marvels now about how the projects opened youths’ eyes to the places they thought they knew so well. He overheard one teenage boy say he would now apply his “designer’s eye” to come up with solutions to perplexing problems.

The kids displayed their work at the World Maker Faire at the New York Hall of Science Sept. 25-26. [For more, read “Teens Build, Tinker and Demo Digital Games and Inventions” at Spotlight.]

NYCLN Extends Learning Beyond the Classroom

These projects are just the beginning of the many possibilities the New Youth City Learning Network hopes to support. In the months ahead, the NYCLN will foster continued collaborations among the city’s institutions so that youth can explore their own interests in self-directed yet mentored ways, whether that be by walking through the door of a museum, or accessing programs and experts virtually via the web or mobile phone.

Over the coming year, NYCLN plans to expand the network by increasing the number of institutions involved, as well as the number of kids reached. An upcoming request for proposals will support projects like those piloted over the summer, as well as smaller ways that organizations can link their current work together to support new forms of youth engagement. NYCLN is also planning to organize professional development opportunities to continue to inform institutional partners about the latest in digital media and learning—including game design and new technologies for mobile learning. The learning network will also sponsor a series of events for kids, including regular game jams and design competitions.

“We want to help institutions work together and connect to how youth learn in this digital and participatory culture,” says Erickson. “And we want kids to think of the network as a place where they can try on new identities and pursue their interests by connecting to various touch points throughout New York City.”

Related: For more on the maker movement and how educators are using tinkering to re-engage kids in learning see “Re-Making Detroit” and “Tinkering the Classroom” at Spotlight.

Top photo: An on-site investigation along Riverside Park is an Urban Biodiversity Network activity. Photos courtesy of New Youth City Learning Network

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