With a $12.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, UCLA will introduce a new computer science teaching tool aimed at L.A. area high schools next fall.

The Mobilize learning program, a brainchild of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies and the university’s Center for Embedded Networked Sensing, will debut new Mobilize cell phone devices in about 16 high school classrooms next school year.

The cell phones will be integrated in the 16 schools that already use a UCLA-developed curriculum, said Jane Margolis, the program’s co-principal investigator and an education researcher at UCLA.

The phones will allow computer science students to capture their daily experiences in text, photo or sound recordings. Students can then organize these inputs to prove phenomena or explain an experience, mimicking the work of real computer scientists, said Mark Hansen, a co-principal investigator and UCLA statistics professor.

For example, students can use their Mobilize phones to photograph and identify invasive species in L.A. parks or take text notes and create a presentation highlighting the poor conditions of local neighborhoods.

These projects, Hansen said, open students’ eyes to the potential data in their daily environments and show them how professional computer scientists create meaningful relationships among data.

“Mobilize taps into kids’ fascination with mobile technology and goes beyond using a phone just for texting,” Margolis said. “By collecting data through photos and texts, they learn about data, different forms of data and what makes robust data.”

Todd Ullah, principal of Washington Preparatory High School, where the Exploring Computer Science course is currently taught, said the curriculum and its upcoming Mobilize component prepare students for computer science pursuits in college. Students will also be encouraged to generate their own data instead of simply consuming technology with already known facts.

“(Before the Exploring Computer Science course), there was a big gap in students actually seeing themselves as computer scientists,” Ullah said. “We wanted them to be producers of knowledge and data.”
Margolis spearheaded development of the Exploring Computer Science curriculum a few years ago after completing research on the unequal distribution of college preparatory computing education in L.A. schools.

The course has been introduced in 16 high schools with high populations of disadvantaged students, and the Mobilize application will be similarly integrated into these and other schools with large numbers of underrepresented students before expanding to the rest of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

UCLA students will be involved in Mobilize’s debut to these schools next fall, said Jody Priselac, a co-principal investigator and executive director of the UCLA Graduate School of Education’s Center X.

“We’ll hopefully have some graduate students going into the schools,” Priselac said about the use of Mobilize-affiliated schools as learning environments for UCLA students. “And kids will come to the UCLA campus to learn, too.”