Moving Kids From Digital Distraction to Environmental Investigation With a Neat Science Education Venture

As buildings, delivery trucks, and buses emit toxic fumes into the air above New York City, middle school students are recording pollution levels on homemade devices and demanding change. This self-proclaimed “Pollution Patrol” participates in an after school program hosted by the New York Hall of Science. The New York Community Trust (NYCT) is a major funder of the program, as part of its Hive Media Learning Fund.

The digital age may still baffle those of us who weren't born with cell phones in our hands and computers on our laps, but technology is the way today’s young people communicate, play, and interact with the world. As part of the New York Hall of Science's after-school program, middle schoolers learn how to build pollution monitoring devices with tools, upload data to online maps, and analyze it as an environmental problem.

The kids study common New York pollution problems like littering, idling cars, and water contamination as part of the after-school curriculum. Then they create videos with the data they've collected and design fliers to bring public attention to the pollution issues they care about most. “The kids really see themselves as agents of change,” said Anthony Negron, the group’s manager of digital programming.

Unlike other after-school programs in the city, this one has changed the face of after-school learning. That's because it actually puts kids' cell phones and technological devices, normally distractions, to work. The Hall of Science's Spring 2014 after-school program meets once a week and includes homework help, exhibit exploration, and themed science experiments.

The New York Community Trust worked with the MacArthur Foundation to develop the Hive Digital Media Learning Fund in 2010 to bring students, teachers, scientists, and artists together around technology. The Fund is overseen by an advisory committee with representatives from other major funders, including the Altman Foundation and the Mozilla Foundation.

NYCT awarded $848,000 to the Hive Digital Media Learning Fund in the fall of 2013. Part of that money (a $50,000 grant) funded the New York Hall of Science to introduce 6th to 8th grade girls to computer programming and encourage them to explore computer science career options. Other NYCT Hive Media grants include a $150,000 to Global Kids to expand NYC Haunts (a history game) and $150,000 the YMCA of Greater New York to expand a teen healthy eating program using virtual badges on smartphones. (See New York Community Trust: New York City Grants).