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Philly Scientists

Mobile Apps for Urban Youth Mapping the Biodiversity of Their Cities

Connected Science Learning April-June 2018 (Volume 1, Issue 6)

By Rasheda Likely, Magdalene Moy, and Nancy Songer

Philly Scientists

The Philly Scientists project engages underserved youth in grades 5–8 and their educators in a curriculum that includes a mobile application with a digital badging reward system.



In 2014 the Obama administration created the Promise Zone designation for an area of West Philadelphia that includes a population faced with challenges stemming from deep and persistent poverty. The Philly Scientists project focuses on engaging Promise Zone youth ages 9–12 (grades 5–8) and their teachers, including in-school and out-of-school instructors, in a Next Generation Science Standards–focused curriculum that includes a mobile application with a digital badging reward system. This 13-hour curriculum is designed to foster 21st-century critical thinking about urban ecology. All resources are designed to support youths’ abilities to gather, analyze, and generate evidence-based solutions to increase the biodiversity of their urban neighborhoods.

A scientist from the Academy of Natural Sciences observes a ground beetle with students.

Program overview

The mobile app is a primary focus of the curriculum and is used to catalogue, through photos and observation records, organisms that students observed, the habitat they observed the organisms in, and what the organisms were doing during the observation. As students create entries through the app, observation information is stored in an online, projectwide database. In Lesson 2 of the curriculum, student groups of three or four go outside and use several tracking tools in a collection bag to record evidence of plants and animals around their school yard. The bag we provide contains four collection jars, two trowels, forceps, magnifying hand lenses, a field guide with animal groups and common animals from the area, a map of the school yard, a pencil, and the Philly Scientists app on an iPad. In subsequent lessons, students perform more extensive data collection followed by data analysis.

Using their collected data, students analyze bar graphs to indicate the most and least abundant animals and plants, high and low richness of a school yard area, and most and least biodiverse areas of the school yard. Students then work collaboratively to achieve a solution to improve the biodiversity in their school yard. Student groups identify an animal or plant that was least abundant or not observed in their area. They then propose a way to add the animal or plant to their school yard. For example, a fifth grader proposed adding bird feeders with sunflower seeds to the school yard to attract more blue jays, which are common in the area but were not observed. Youth, with guidance from scientists and their teachers, perform tasks reflective of actual biodiversity scientists’ work.

Collection Bag Materials
A 6th grader uses her trowel to move sticks underneath a log during a collection.

Digital badges awarded

The youth and teachers also have the opportunity to earn digital badges that provide incentives for participation by awarding and certifying accomplishments, skills, interests, or cognitive demonstrations. Instructor digital badges are awarded after professional development courses and leading students through the curriculum. Student digital badges are earned through activities such as animal identification, inputting 20 unique animal and plant observations, and solution generation. The final badge is earned after earning previous badges and completing the curriculum. This Digital Pathway of individual badges leading to receipt of the final badge has been added to the project’s website.

Interaction with scientists

Philly Scientists allows students to interact with Drexel’s environmental science undergraduate and graduate students to give youths an experience with professionals they may not have otherwise encountered. Through a partnership with the Academy of Natural Sciences, two science educators and researchers with expertise ranging from ornithology to entomology to botany accompany students on their collection trips. The scientists provide a brief background on their research area and then lead a class discussion on how to make good field observations. 

Challenging the pattern of poverty

Youth science knowledge and career awareness in the program are designed to challenge the patterns of persistent poverty through:

  1. higher-order pedagogical experiences,
  2. engaging science and technology learning, and
  3. mentoring by university students and professionals.
A 6th grader uses the Philly Scientist App to capture an image of an arachnid.

Students’ knowledge has value for urban planning, and students can become a local resource for their area of the city. Students think critically about collected data to analyze them and propose a solution that draws from evidence-based conclusions. Through these activities, students not only participate in actual science activities, but they also recognize the value of presenting and discussing valid solutions for what can be done to improve their city. These activities require students to demonstrate a suite of 21st-century skills, including communicating, critical thinking, problem solving, and interpersonal skills.

Because these resources are part of an iterative research design, aspects of the curriculum are currently being updated in preparation for a Spring 2018 implementation. We expect the project will also provide data and evidence that support next-generation science learning and students’ awareness of science careers, mentors, and resources in urban Philadelphia.


Rasheda Likely ( is a second-year graduate student in the School of Education at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Magdalene Moy ( is a second-year graduate student in the School of Education at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Nancy Songer ( is the dean of the School of Education at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Informal Education

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