by Team Planet Lab
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.
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.
“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.”