Urban Learning Labs for Young Neighborhood Explorers: Creating Digital Toolkits for Participatory Mapping and Action

Submitted to MacArthur's Digital Media and Learning Design Competition on 2/15/2010
Although existing technology could be used to foster youth participation and create locally relevant contexts for math and science learning, most tools are either too complex or lack appropriate functionality for this task.
We propose the creation of a network of "Urban Learning Labs" (ULL) to support youth-led active exploration, participatory learning, and civic engagement among children and adolescents in their neighborhoods. Our project aims to develop easy-to-use, open-source digital toolkits with corresponding curricula and pedagogical guidance to help young people:
  • Capture neighborhood knowledge by taking photographs, measuring distances, recording interviews with mobile phones, and constructing local maps using kites and balloons equipped with digital cameras.
  • Represent local information as spatial narratives integrating mash-ups of digital media and mapping in an online platform.
  • Choose a question, then organize neighborhood initiatives through the "Department of Play", an advocacy forum for children and adolescents to reflect about, share and act critically in their local communities, and shape the direction of the ULL as it develops.

By working with ULL's adult mentors, young people will use the toolkits to create child-centered neighborhood guides, record stories, collect environmental data, identify safe play spaces, and more. Youth will work as citizen scientists to solve real-life challenges and compare experiences with other children from both the local area and cities worldwide.
The ULL tools and approach will be developed and evaluated by experienced MIT researchers in collaboration with already-established community partners in the USA, Brazil, Peru and the West Bank. Check http://grassrootsmapping.org and http://voicesbeyondwalls.org for information on some of our ongoing initiatives.
By creating a global network of Urban Learning Labs, we will offer a personally meaningful context for technology usage, foster new forms of co-learning and creative empowerment, and provide new venues for young people to reflect and become more actively engaged with their local environment.