More than 400 students in the West Philadelphia area will become urban scientists through a three-year, $1.17 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Fourth-, 5th-, and 6th-grade students will use mobile app technology to track movements of the urban animals of Philadelphia through the project, which is called Kids as Urban Scientists: Mapping Diversity in the Philadelphia Promise Zone.
“This is a wonderful opportunity to have Philadelphia youth partner with professional scientists to gain an understanding of local science and apply their knowledge in important ways,” said Nancy Songer, dean of Drexel University’s School of Education, which, along with Drexel researchers, designed the curriculum that will be used.
The Kids as Urban Scientists project will engage students in the classroom with the support of 40 teachers in the District.
Outside of school time, students will work with scientists from the Academy of Natural Sciences to learn about biodiversity in urban areas. Students will use an app to track the behavior of urban animals and work to identify all birds and insects living in the area.
Researchers are adapting a mobile app that was used in a similar initiative in Detroit for use in Philadelphia. Beta testing is set to begin in spring 2017, and the project is expected to be active by the end of summer 2017 for schools in the Philadelphia Promise Zone, a two-square-mile area of West Philadelphia designated as one of the highest-poverty areas in the nation by the federal government.
The initiative supports the efforts of NSF's Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) project, which promotes science, technology, engineering, and math opportunities for student populations underrepresented in those fields. A goal of the Kids as Urban Scientists project is to expose students to career possibilities in science.
“We saw firsthand the positive impact a project like this had on children in Detroit, and we are thrilled to bring a similar opportunity to children just beyond Drexel’s campus,” Songer said.
Drexel already has strong partnerships with schools in the Promise Zone, including Morton McMichael Elementary, Samuel Powel Elementary, and Science Leadership Academy Middle School. These schools, whose teachers and students provided support letters for the grant application, will be the first participants in the program.
The project’s impact will be evaluated by tracking digital badges that both students and teachers will earn in categories such as recognition or motivation and track participants’ progress in the program.
Students will be able to apply the information they collect for a practical purpose as well. They will make recommendations regarding urban biodiversity to the Schuylkill Yards development project at a Biodiversity Summit that will include policy-makers and city leaders.
Kids as Urban Scientists will be led by Songer, along with Nancy Peter, director of STEM initiatives at the Philadelphia Education Fund, and Winifred Black, special projects coordinator for the Center for Schools and Communities.
Researchers plan to continue developing the app for the rest of Philadelphia with hopes of expanding its reach to urban communities throughout the country.