Planet Lab: Instructional Design Principles

Planet Lab’s instructional design strategy (including curriculum, KPIs and rubrics) follows several evidence-based practices for teaching and learning in the sciences. This blogpost lays out the major research frameworks that undergird this networked approach to science and technology education.

1) The First Framework: Learning happens in a network.

“STEM Ecosystems” research shows how organizations can collaborate across sectors to provide engaging learning pathways for youth.

“A STEM learning ecosystem encompasses schools, community settings such as after-school and summer programs, science centers and museums, and informal experiences at home and in a variety of environments. Together [these experiences’ constitute a rich array of learning opportunities for young people. A learning ecosystem harnesses the unique contributions of all these different settings in symbiosis to deliver STEM learning for all children. Designed pathways enable young people to become engaged, knowledgeable and skilled in the STEM disciplines as they progress through childhood into adolescence and early adulthood.” (Traphagen and Traill, Noyce Fdn Report, 2014)

This approach requires schools and institutions to work together; they must identify and overcome barriers and form integrated, strategic partnerships for engaging learning pathways. (Olson and Labov, National Academies Press, 2014) This integrated approach has impacts on important indicators for student success, including learning and achievement, and interest and identity. (Honey et al, Natl. Academies Press, 2014)

Similarly, the Connected Learning framework studies how youth engage on-line tools, communities, and opportunities to create learning experiences that cross anyone institutional. This framework celebrates the uses of digital and mobile tools and opportunities for authentic youth engagement, helping formal and informal educators use these tools in the context of designing learning. From this point of view “Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out” (or “homago”) on-line are valid forms of learning and participation, and at at times, offer more excitement and possibility than the traditional school classrooms. Connected Learning principles seek to build upon the frameworks of social media, building and tinkering in makerspaces, and “hacker culture” in order to leverage new resources to build quality and access in education. (See Ito et al, Digital Media and Learning Hub, 2012).

Planet Lab builds an ecosystem for sharing learning resources across organizations, engaging youth in collaborative challenges that scale-up geographically to provide new networks for learning and exchanging ideas. Planet Lab seeks to create a space for positive youth engagement on-line, opening up new opportunities for knowledge exploration and exchange via networked technology.

2) The Second Framework: Reading and calculating in the sciences means putting ideas into practice. 

In order to improve elementary reading and numeracy outcomes, we must help students to practice real-world problem-solving challenges. In these challenges (also known as problem-based learning), students must practice data collection and analysis, informational reading, recording their observations, and designing diagrams to communicate information. If these “core skills” in math and literacy are practiced in conjunction with science and technology challenges, schools can help lead the way to “cradle to career” pathways for youth.

The U.S. Next Generation Science Standards provide a framework for this integration between science, math and literacy by highlighting key “practices” that engage math and literacy skills. (Examples include asking questions and defining problems, engaging in arguments from evidence, and using data.)

Literacy and science can serve each other, and the study of science can offer a space for engaging reading instruction. A key problem, however, in the U.S. “STEM pipeline” is that over 61% of elementary educators feel unprepared to teach science (Natl. Survey of Science and Math educators. A number of evidence-based programs have focused on multi-modal approaches to science pedagogy. These programs integrate tools like a scientists notebook for recording observations, or an illustrated storyboard to show a process at work.

The instructional design of Planet Lab “quests” is based on these approaches, drawing inspiration and design strategies from evidence based programs for engaging developing readers through the sciences: Concept Oriented Reading Instruction (CORI), Guided Inquiry supporting Multiple Literacies (GIsML), In-depth Expanded Applications of Science (Science IDEAS), and Seeds of Science / Roots of Reading.

3) The Third Framework: Professional Learning Communities are key for school improvement. 

A common dilemma for schools and teachers is to track, implement, and study the impact of professional development programs. In many cases, science-engaged teachers seek out specialized workshops, but have little time to share what they have learned with other staff in their school setting. In many schools, some teachers develop special skill sets–such as engaging youth through the school garden plot–but with little opportunity to learn from their peers, they can’t leverage their leadership to impact the whole school climate.

Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) are an effective approach to implementing new instructional techniques and school change efforts. In contrast to shorter-term professional development, PLCs grow school based support networks from the ground up. PLC’s support educators to share, implement, and study new instructional methodologies. Extensive research has identified best practices for PLCs; they should emphasize collaboration, shared values, a focus on learning outcomes, and opportunities for peer exchanges and horizontal mentorship. (See Ruebel, 2012 for an excellent research review, Annenberg Report, 2009)

Because PLCs are based in exchanges between teachers in a situated learning community, they allow for a differentiation of professional learning in order to best enhance each educators’ instructional toolkit. Technology can greatly enhance the impacts of PLCs. Video-based reflection and lesson studies are important practices for enhancing professional learning. Teachers can use these tools to document and share examples of their own practice. Using technology, they can reflect on the practice of other teachers and offer supportive advice with reference to student-learning outcomes. (See EdSurge Report, 2014).


Let’s Kickstart Planet Lab!

To support out Kickstarter, click here!

Radha Ramachandran is Planet Lab's Education Director.Physicist Radha Ramachandran has decided to trade in her lab coat and goggles for a different kind of laboratory: public school classrooms across the nation.

Like many STEM educators, Ramachandran was angry to learn that politicians were voting against new science standards. Over the last year alone, Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma legislators have rejected the standards, creating heated debates around the role of science in public education. Why? The new standards make sure that schools teach about climate change and evolution.

Ramachandran decided that every pupil should have free and open access to a cutting-edge STEM education—no matter what state they might live in. That’s why she decided to juggle finishing her dissertation and applying for post docs with a new goal–taking on the role of Planet Lab‘s education director.

Last summer, the Planet Lab team won the Chicago CleanWeb Challenge, an award from Chicago’s Mayor Emanuel, and recognition from ISTE’s PitchFest (Int. Society of Technology in Education). In the Fall, they started to sign on major institutions—from the National Institute of Health to the U.S. Forest Service—to share learning content in a networked way with youth and teachers.

Ramachandran discovered a passion for teaching as a physics graduate student at the University of Chicago. She started to visit classrooms on the South Side, trying out curriculum about data collection and material science research.

“I wanted to get teens analyzing data, but I realized many hadn’t grasped the basics of data collection yet. I was seeing gaps in math and data literacy, and I realized it started in elementary school.  Our team learned that teachers, especially elementary educators, need supportive connections with the scientific community. They needed clearer ways to get students excited about information at work in the world.”

“When we work on science education, we’re working on the future of people and the planet,” says Ramachandran. “Every new medicine, every advance in sustainable energy depends on this: how can train the next generation of innovators to tackle problems that matter? I know that we can do it better. That’s why we’re building Planet Lab.”

“With Planet Lab, kids don’t just learn science, they do science,” she says. Classrooms  sign on to research and innovation challenges–from mapping the range of bumblebee species to re-designing their school’s energy usage.  The team pairs challenges with math and literacy curriculum to enable more teacher to try out a hands-on approach to STEM.

“In the scientific community, there are a lot of people developing great learning projects and materials,” she explains. “But we can’t scale across schools. We don’t have the assets of the big textbook publishers.  Planet Lab brings this community together.  We want to give youth exposure to career pathways and to help schools work together to make a difference.

“When we work on science education, we’re working on the future of people and the planet,” says Ramachandran. “Every new medicine, every advance in sustainable energy depends on this: how can train the next generation of innovators to tackle problems that matter? I know that we can do it better. That’s why we’re building Planet Lab.”

Follow the team at @PlanetaryLab, and check-out their Kickstarter here.

We Can Do Anything We Set Our Minds To: A Teacher Builds a Network of Learners

By Theresa Strepek
Theresa Strepek is a former technology teacher and software developer. She shares her thoughts about working on Planet Lab, and the importance of high-quality project-based learning. 
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Theresa Strepek and her daughter celebrate with winners of the CNT Sustainability Apps Hackathon.

This year, I’ve been a part of one of the most exciting endeavors of my lifetime. We’re building a new way to connect students to STEM education through Planet Lab.

When I signed up for a sustainability hackathon last year, I felt driven to connect my skills in software development with an important goal–to create a 21st Century economy that can sustain our future generations. I felt immediately inspired by the core idea of Planet Lab–to help every teacher connect their classroom with fun, networked STEM projects that make a positive impact on people and the planet.

I spent five years teaching computers and technology in an Illinois high school.  I was in charge of the school’s Technology curriculum. There, I saw that there were two basic approaches to lesson planning. The first was step by step instructions and worksheets. In this kind of lesson, students were engaged in only a shallow way; they put in just enough effort to get to the end. But the second type of lesson was project-based.  In this type of classroom, individual lessons built into larger, meaningful projects–projects that require real-life connections and applied thinking.  I soon realized that if I bored my students, they would forget the material I taught them.

As I honed my craft as a teacher, I remembered my own time as a high schooler. I lost some of my own natural curiosity by just sitting my desk studying facts from books. I remember others students that were disengaged and bored because the learning disconnected from real life applications. I knew that isolated learning was failing to lead to long-term learning.  So when I had a chance to design curriculum, I aimed to create content that pricked deeper cognitive learning…projects that were genuinely interesting because they connected to important issues and challenges.

How does a young person get the kind of confidence that they need to innovate new solutions? First, they have to know that we need them–we need their creative contribution. We need to focus together on real problems–not just facts and formulas.  We need to help them to have “A Ha” moments. We need to connect them to the Big Picture.

As a teacher, I wove a common thread through each interaction with each student I saw each month. I looked my each student in the eye and said “I see that this is an area of natural strength for you”–whether it was design, computation, beginning programming, leadership. I wanted to help light that spark of curiosity into a career-driven pursuit. I devised every classroom project to begin with a real-world challenge.

I believe that project-based learning–where students have to pose questions and solve real-world problems–is the direction that we need to go in to improve our school system.  Unfortunately, every teacher is crunched for time. It’s hard to research and prepare this kind of activity. In America we are so focused on these tests that we forget what learning is for. Planet Lab solves that problem; we’re supporting student and teacher access to great content and projects created by experts from many fields.

To me, Planet Lab is not  a destination. Planet Lab is a journey.  As students make contributions to real-world projects in citizen science and sustainability, they get involved in the broader community. They learn exactly WHY learning is important, and HOW it will be useful in their lives. They have the chance to learn with one another, and from those experts who can cast a vision of the broader world.

I’m the grand daughter of a WW2 Veteran, and I’m also a person of Blackfoot Native American heritage.  When I think about all of the challenges that face our next generation–energy, agriculture, health, medicine & building a strong economy–I just think back to the principle that my grandfather always told to me. We can do anything that we set our minds to. 

Connecting Every Classroom to Exceptional STEM Learning

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Arianna Lambie teaches a project-based lesson on earthquake proof buildings to her 7th grade class.

by Arianna Lambie

When I was a classroom teacher, I was always on-line. I tried hard to stay up to date with cutting-edge teaching resources in science.  Given how many resources are out there, it was a nearly impossible task.

Over the last few months, I’ve had the honor of speaking with leaders from many of the most reputable STEM organizations in the country.  We’ve discussed each other’s work and missions, and I’ve invited them to distribute their educational content through the Planet Lab network.  In less than two months, Planet Lab has developed partnerships with more than 25 federal, academic, and local STEM institutions who’ve resolved to share their educational material through Planet Lab, making it easy for teachers and students to find exceptional learning content. Working together, we will build the first-of-its-kind library of searchable, standards-aligned, project-based and multi-media STEM resources.

What also impressed me was the enthusiasm with which many of the STEM organization representatives responded to Planet Lab.  They saw it as filling a vital, unmet need. Tony Beck from the National Institute of Health (NIH) valued the networking aspect of Planet Lab: “A lot of major organizations are doing great work in the area of STEM education, but we don’t often talk to each other.  You are providing a tremendous service.” Robert Ridky of the US Geological Survey (USGS) appreciated Planet Lab’s focus on cross-disciplinary project-based learning: “We need more relevant, interdisciplinary learning resources. Just because there a lot of good science things on the web does not mean that they are appropriate to an instructional setting. You and your team are doing important work.”

During this outreach process, I was struck by the wealth and depth of educational resources that STEM organizations are producing.  As an educator who frequently searches online for lesson supplements, I discovered countless new sites and new levels of resources that I wish I had known about when I was a classroom teacher.  It made me fully appreciate the way the Planet Lab network with grow opportunities for educators and students.

Encouraged by the positive response from this initial outreach, we continue to develop new partnerships with STEM organizations around the country.  From the content shared by our partners, our curriculum team will be able to build a full suite of quests and missions in subject areas ranging from ecology to electricity by Planet Lab’s launch in 2015.

Planet Lab Takes Top Prize in the CleanWeb Challenge!

by Team Planet Lab

Developer Jeremy Washington explains Planet Lab's features to Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago science leaders.

Developer Jeremy Washington explains Planet Lab’s features to Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago science leaders.

What if every kid in Chicago—and around the world—had access to a world-class science education at the touch of an app button?  That’s the vision behind Planet Lab, a social network for learning science and helping the planet.

This Summer, that vision captured the attention of Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago. Our team won 1st place in the Chicago Clean Web Challenge, a year-long series of hackathon competitions designed to promote civic participation in sustainability.

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The Alliance for the Great Lakes will be launching quests on Planet Lab next school year!

The idea behind Planet Lab is simple.  Take hands-on science and technology projects and turn them into an engaging social game. Instead of aiming guns at digital targets, the game prompts youth to check electric meters, weigh recyclables in the school trash, and measure the size of plants in nearby community gardens. To win, youth have to contribute real scientific data and help people and the planet.

“Kids in the U.S. spend about five hours a day at T.V. and video games,” explains Ala’ Diab, a video game designer and the co-founder of Freedom Games. “We wanted to invent a totally new kind of game, a game that tells kids–get off the couch! Go outside, and measure that tree! Find a bumblebee! Help the Earth.”

To design Planet Lab, the team invited 500 Chicago Public School Students from Greencorps to contribute ideas and research.  We asked them about problems in science and technology education—and how they would teach science if they were in charge of the classroom.

Their answers were clear. Less “check and talk.” More projects, more teamwork, and more exposure to meaningful skills in the world of work.

“When the end of day school bell rings next year, we’ll have kids taking out their smart phones to learn more science!” quips Theresa Strepek, a mom and teacher turned web developer. “I’m building this because I want my own kids to play it.”  Ms. Strepek has lent her coding skills to the design of Planet Lab, and helped to facilitate a large corporate donation of web development time from her company, AST.  Like the students at Greencorps, Chicago employers are invested in making STEM education exciting and fun.

Team Planet Lab receives the CleanWeb Challenge award from Mayor Emanuel.

Team Planet Lab receives the CleanWeb Challenge award from Mayor Emanuel.

“We know we can’t fix all of the problems in urban education with one app.  But we can do something,” says Jeremy Washington, a software developer on the team.  “We can give kids a chance to learn about the science in their own neighborhood—not just from their textbooks.”

A Bee in a Hive

by Eve Tulbert
(This post was originally published at, September 29, 2014)

Bees--bee and flower

Lately, I’ve been paying attention to a small but significant act of nature.  It’s one I’ve often overlooked before. It’s the ritual dance of the honey bee.

At sunrise, worker bees leave their hive and go wandering. They locate their pollen prize–a field of clover or a Chicago community garden patch. They look to the sun and record it’s precise angle. They encode this information, and carry it back for all of the bees in the hive.

How wonderful! This simple dance makes me want to shout, “Hey bee! I’ve got a Hive too!”  Why?  Because when I see bees working together, I remember this: The knowledge of any learner must flow within its network.


Among bees, the waggle dance communicates flower location.

Think about it.  That little dancing honey bee has all the qualities of a connected learner. It has a social system.  It’s part of a sisterhood that nurtures it…and shows it how to fly. It has a system of communication.  It carries a code–both in it’s genes and in it’s movements–that connects it to the world at large.  It cooperates.  Each bee works with others to make the sweetest of nectars. In fact, it’s whole life is like the perfect learning game, connecting food, friendship, geometry dances…and countless learning exchanges with every other bee! Not to mention that, while they’re at it, they pollinate about 90% of the world’s human nutrition.

Design in a Hive

The Hive Chicago is an invaluable place to learn from the practices of other youth–worker bees, the people who provide services and learning experiences to young people in Chicago. This provides a huge benefit when attempting to create a new program.

Our team at Freedom Games has been tackling a design challenge that feels as complex as a matrix of beehives.  There are over 400 learning gardens in Chicago Public Schools, but though the garden beds are built, not all get planted. Without equipped teacher leaders, many school gardens are going to weed. Learning and training for CPS elementary educators needs some hive-mind magic.  How can we help every teacher and kid learn the knowledge and skills to get each garden planted?  That’s the challenge behind Planet Lab, a connected learning platform for youth citizen science.

To design Planet Lab, our team collected input and action research from over 500 students and science mentors by collaborating with organizations like Greencorps Chicago, Academy for Global Citizenship, and Kitchen Community.

Over and over, youth told us that they don’t want to to learn textbook science limited to their classrooms anymore. They want to connect STE(A)M learning to service, to teamwork, and to hands-on problems that extend the classroom experience — youth action research. They want their classroom learning experiences to look and feel more like the programs that Hive members design. What would it be like if all Chicago youth had the chance to solve immediately relevant, real-world problems with science and technology, instead of focusing on workbook pages?

Children learning in a Kitchen Community modular garden.

Children learning in a Kitchen Community modular garden.

Here’s a real-world problem we could tackle. Of all children enrolled in out-of-school time programs in Chicago, 39% experience food insecurity. In other words, they lack consistent access to quality, affordable food. What’s worse, nearly 1 of 6 youth are regularly experiencing chronic hunger.  With food stamp assistance and school meals, the one-third of Chicago children that live in poverty can scrape by.  However, this years’ prolonged debates in the House led to a bi-partisan farm bill that cut nearly 9 billion dollars of food for youth suffering from poverty. When we can see the world like the bees in a hive, we understand a landscape of system-level problems.

When I was a kid, my family relied on food stamps and public assistance; it’s possible that soon, many kids won’t have that option. Like many of you, my youth work career has connected me to kids struggling with the food insecurity question. In Bolivia, youth told me how the quickly rising price of water would mean choosing between food, water and medicine. At a teen homeless shelter in L.A., I met young moms caught up in the stress of gaining and losing public benefits and poverty wage jobs. On the U.S. Mexico Borderzone, I met old women begging for food for their grandchildren. They were given a shameful beggars’ meal–dried up blue corn tortilla, too tasteless to chew.

Cross Pollination

A global question needs a networked answer, and I know our Hive has it. Across the city, young Chicago scientists are preparing to solve these pressing question both for their neighborhoods and for their world.  This season alone:

Sweet Water’s school-based aquaponics program in action.

Sweet Water’s school-based aquaponics program in action.

  • There are youth learning about aquaponics at the SweetWater Foundation, getting their hands dirty with fish poop and dirt. Thanks to you, Emanuel Pratt!
  • There are youth thinking about how to re-engineer the food waste stream, making bricks from recycled materials at the South Side Makerfaire.  Nice work, Jackie Moore!
  • There are youth growing experimental gardens grown in the windows of After School Matters. Jameela Jafri, what a bee!
  • There are youth digitally mapping species diversity in Chicago’s green spaces at the Peggy Noterbaert. Take flight, Dave Bild!
  • There are youth learning how to connect Arduinos to community garden research questions at the Field Museum. Way to waggle dance, Edge Quintanilla!

    Dave Bild teaches youth environmental monitoring techniques and mobile GIS.

    Dave Bild teaches youth environmental monitoring techniques and mobile GIS.

System-level problems–like growing healthy food for all kids–require hands-on design thinking, making and tinkering, and community service.  But most of all, they require connectedness… connected learning can lead to the sweetest rewards.

This Fall, our organization is enthralled to apply as formal members of the Hive…and we think you should too! Through this network, we’ve already gained knowledge, power and partnerships. We’ve learned through your passionate dances!

When I participate in the Hive, I know that together, we are fostering that new generation who will make the world a better place.  They are the savvy design thinkers who will tackle every problem until it’s solved.  They are the generation who will fly high–connecting, collaborating, overcoming the designs that no longer serve us…and finding those new ideas that do.

That’s astounding, and it’s something to buzz about–and tweet about, and bark, and caterwaul. Together, we can make the loudest sound.

Eve Tulbert is CEO and co-founder at Freedom Games, a non-profit education design studio dedicated to working with youth and teachers to playfully re-imagine learning. This year, we’ll be launching Planet Lab beta with CPS schools and learning gardens. Be(e) in touch if you’d like to learn more!

Language Game Design with Community

by Ala’ Diab


I’ve just arrived back from a wonderful, enriching trip to Australia.

I was invited to co-facilitate a design workshop on language preservation and games. The workshop brought together linguistic anthropologists, software developers, and teachers and mentors from the many aboriginal language communities. The workshop was organized by the Research Unit for Indigenous Language at the University of Melbourne.

In Australia, and around the world, languages are “shifting” and becoming “obsolescent” at a rapid rate.  Why is this?  It has to do with the larger forces of education, media, and adoption of the new and flash (over the old, ancestral, and traditional).  Language and culture go hand in hand, and when kids fail to learn their community language, they loose contact with customs and practices that have endured in Australia for 50,000 years.

Working with a groupd of aborigine womenMy desire was to connect with community members who traveled long distances to be there.  In a few short days, I wanted to teach about designing games and apps, and to be able to shift some of their biases around mobile computing as it’s being pushed and marketed at communities.  In other words, I wanted to share tools that would let community leaders think creatively about apps that they could build and create working with youth, versus using the tools to adopt the latest global trends.

Working with Prof. Inge Kral of the Australian National University, we created a space during the working session for people to be safe to express their ideas without judgement. How could we help these community leaders, healers and teachers think of their tablets and phones as new tools in the toolbox of cultural preservation?

Together, we engaged in a session on the many tools and programs that are being deployed for language maintenance. Then, we got in to the fun stuff–co-design. We worked with the community of leaders to design and imagine new experiences with tech.

The key goal they had was this: fun! How could interactive experiences become fun and engaging enough for their young learners to be interested in learning and retaining their mother language. Community leaders engaged in a process of needs and skills assessment to begin to imagine new design ideas.

Prototyping with paper and iPadWhen it was time to get down and start documenting some game ideas, I borrowed a useful tool from the UI/UX toolkit: a print out of an tablet. It proved so effective and successful  that printing wasn’t able to keep up with requests by groups. Understandably, it offered the design teams a tangible sense of the scale of the device but also immediate feedback to idea generation. A sketch on a mock paper device is not simply a sketch, it is a doorway to multiple interaction possibilities.

I could not have imagined the depth, variety, and sophistication of the ideas the community generated. The ideas can be grouped into three main areas: country and culture, kin relation and mapping.

As designer interacting with these new communities, one of my major challenges was to understand the subtleties and dynamics of identity and gender in aboriginal communities: the way women and men had separate spheres of activity, language and geographical affiliation, and the notion of sacred knowledge and the ownership of cultural practices. If the apps we make don’t take this into consideration, they won’t be effective.

I was particularly excited about some of the work that NPY Women’s Council created.  The team brought a 3D map of a typical village and had mapped emotions across the spectrum in context. They identified a real need for apps and games that offer people scenarios where they practice non-violent communication and tackle issues of mental and emotional challenges.

Through the experience, I discovered that there is a need to create a toolkit that combines the best of Design Thinking and Player-centric Game Design methodologies for use with communities and by communities…so now, we’re starting to put this together.  We want to create a way to prototype with communities so that developers can use first ideas to build a digital prototype. Stay tuned as we collect ideas and turn them into exercises and printable materials.

If you have any ideas about co-designing games for language and cultural preservation, I’d love to hear from you!

Changing the Map: Foundational Practices for Youth Civic Hacking

by Eve Tulbert


Students at the Whitney Young Eco-Fair design green transportation game in a Freedom Games workshop.

As a community-based researcher interested in ecology and environmental learning, I have been collecting strategies that get youth talking about their surroundings.  This short talk was prepared for Public Allies Community Innovator’s Circle, Summer 2013…

This summer, Freedom Games is creating a design laboratory for youth in order to answer this question: How can kids learn science and serve the Earth in parks, wild lands, and recreation sites?  We want to bring STEAM (science, tech, engineering, arts/design and math) home to the tree outside your window and to the park down the block.

Having access to a map–and the right to change it– is the beginning of all social change moments.  When we have a map, we can use it to make complex decisions about our pathways, our food ways, our waterways and our built habitats.  These patterns are often taken for granted before we study the map out and try to suss out how a system works. From photography to site mapping, these projects engage our knowledge of maps–but not the just the map of the Cartesian plane.  There are also experience maps, maps of design and desire, maps of story lines and social exchange.

With today’s mobile web technology, we have become the first generation to carry the map of the world map with us always.  Like Atlas, who balanced the Globe upon his shoulders, we must consider the obligation we have when we see and interact with the whole world map all at once.  We know that our everyday habits and routines are liable to impact those far away places…that have suddenly become much closer.

​How can place-building, map-reading, and impacting our cities become playful and engaging practices?  These innovative artists, designers, and community leaders show us how.


Get Every Voice Involved

Participatory Rural Appraisal is a widely practiced set of development tools that allows communities to map out and re-imagine the impact of a public works idea or agrarian plans.  Urban artists and design innovators add new twists on the practice, getting communities involved with personal narrative and imagination.​


Site cake map, by Public Workshop.

​​Public Workshop (Philadelphia) has an excellent approach to the problem of site analysis. Pull out a table on the sidewalk and get some easily available materials.  Let the passers by in the neighborhood record their experiences as they build a site map together…a map that they can then eat.  (Any recipes for a healthier version with less carbs?)

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I wish installation, Candy Chang.

​Candy Chang is a New Orlean’s based artist and designer who has recently gained notoriety her compelling talk “Before I Die” on the TED network.  Her simple yet evocative solutions could be used in any public planning process.  Chang places blank stickers, placards, and chalk boards on abandoned wall space to create community conversation; topics range from rent prices, wishes for empty storefronts, and intimate dreams.   Through her simple, effective strategies, the walking public can connect in new ways with the process of urban planning.

TRY THIS:  Does your organization or school have a mis-used or under-used space?  Let youth cover one wall with post-it notes stating what they wish the space could be.  Collect community resources (not just money, but skilled helpers and material donations) to change the space.


Use a Camera, Map a Network

Creative community development relies on the buy-in of local change makers.  Use asset mapping strategies and ask this:  Who are the leaders in the community, and how do you identify valuable expertise that can contribute to a successful, beneficial change?  This is a critical kind of mapping activity–mapping a social network in a place.

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Check out Photovoice’s photo gallery to see more pictures from this and other projects.  

“Photo-voice” as a community mapping tool can be traced back to the fields of rural China.  There, women were given cameras in order to explain child-care problems with work in the rice industry.  Having a camera to document the landscape allowed illiterate, marginal women to participate in a new way in the rural development process.  Through photography, discussion, and pointed advocacy, the rice workers became seen as mothers with power, not just hidden agricultural workers.

​The tool has been used all over the world as a strategy for giving young people a visual voice–through documentation, discussion, and advocacy, young people can use photo-voice to understand conundrums that they face everyday.  In the above photographs, teen photographer Aparicio Martinez documents life for displaced indigenous teens.  By partnering with Amnesty International, these photographs help to make a map around needs for improved human rights and land tenure.

TRY THIS:  Buy a cheap digital camera and allow each participant in your program to take five to ten pictures on it.  Create a photo voice worksheet, asking your photographers to answer specific questions with their photographs, such as “what do you see as the best asset in this community?”  “What is your biggest challenge in this space / neighborhood?”  Then, collect all of the photographs together and project them on the wall.  Have participants discuss and comment on the emerging themes.  Create a set of key word tags and publish the collection on a photo sharing site.  Use this information to design a new program or to advocate for a policy change that the group wants to see.  Data can be easily quantified from photo-mapping strategies if it is coded.


​Use Video to Spread the Story

​Participatory Video is a practice that engages community members in story-telling about the landscape in order to impact a practice and spread an idea.  It has been used to spread grassroots innovation in permaculture and land maintenance (such as “how to plant mangroves to stop erosion in Mexico”).  it has also been used to spread information to the international community when dams or mining projects threaten indigenous tenure, leading to displacement.


Insight Share trains communities around the world in protecting and preserving land through video making and screening.  To view some of their videos, click here.  

The practice has impact if communities have tools to continue to spread, view and make videos, and insert their voices into the political dialogue over their land.

TRY THIS:  Create a video that can impact the environment.  Identify a local stake-holder community (such as moms that leave car engines running while picking up kids).  Now, create short, instructional promotional videos and share them.  Document the impact of the videos through behavior changes you witness.​