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Black Cloud Citizen Scientists: Breathing is Believing

Students of Antero Garcia?sEnglish class at Manual Arts High School in South Central Los Angelesfound out, through a game, that their classroom was polluted. Not justa little bit polluted?but one of the most polluted in theirneighborhood.

With over 3,000 enrolled in grades 9 through 12, students at ManualArts attend one of three year-round tracks to handle overcrowding. Over80 percent of the students are Hispanic, and many speak English as asecond language. Neighborhoods surrounding Manual Arts suffer frompoverty, crime and gangs that trouble much of South Central L.A. Butunder the direction of Antero Garcia, students in his English classtook part in one of the most cutting-edge pedagogies in the nation.

Garcia introduced Black Cloud to his students, an innovative new game created by Greg Niemeyer that won a 2007 HASTAC/MacArthur Digital Media & Learninggrant. In the game, fourteen wireless air sensors, or Pufftrons, wereplaced around the South Los Angeles community, each one sending data toa Web site that tracked and displayed fluctuations in temperature,light, carbon dioxide, noise and volatile organic compounds.

Black Cloud is one of many games Niemeyer has brought tolife?literally?using electricity, code, and people. Over the years, hehas created a flute-playing greenhouse and hosted a panel with ripening tomatoes.A professor and member of Berkeley?s Institute of Design, Niemeyerstudies the intersection of emotions and technology, and uses games asa way to engage people with serious issues or, as Niemeyer writes, tosupport cultural change.

This emphasis on games for learning is at the heart of Niemeyer?s artpractice, a point he underscores on his resume, ?Based on the notionthat we learn everything we know from playing games, I wrote my gamebiography here.?Listed first, at age one, is Peekaboo. By the time he created BlackCloud, Niemeyer had a history of games that challenge, delight,surprise and, in many ways, change the way people think.

With Black Cloud, Garcia?s students had to solve cryptic clues tolocate the Pufftron sensors and learn to interpret the online graphsdisplaying air quality for each location. During the game, they usedTwitter and texted each other to figure out the clues. Carbon dioxidecontent in fresh air is typically between 300 and 400 parts permillion, so students were dismayed to discover, by playing the game,that their neighborhood measured 600 parts per million.

Even more surprising, however, was what they discovered at Manual Arts.In their classroom, Garcia?s students found that carbon dioxide levelswere 3,000 parts per million, more than ten times a healthy amount; at2,000 parts per million, humans experience, nausea, drowsiness andheadaches, so immediate changes were made. Students brought in plantsto absorb carbon dioxide and opened doors during class to let aircirculate.

This kind of participatory learning makes Garcia?s class unique. ?Ithink that if we?re going to be properly serving the students of [the21st century] there will need to be a drastic shift in how we interpretlearning and what it looks like,? writes Garcia, a view that dovetailswith Niemeyer?s claim that ?games are among the most powerful vectorsof change in our culture.?

Participatory learning, in which students find, share, build and act oninformation, is at the heart of Garcia?s 21st-century experience withBlack Cloud. Being able to interpret visualization models like Black Cloud?s graphs,using Twitter to text messages, even turning citizen scientists intocitizen journalists?these are information literacy skills that studentsneed in a digital age.

And while a game must be played to be fully experienced, the lessonsthe students learned speak to anyone trying to follow climate change.?We have to be able to see how our individual actions determine thequality of air where we are now, much like driving directions tell ushow we can get from a specific place to another with exact turns,? saysNiemeyer. ?Currently the climate information we get is like looking updirections and getting a diagram of manifest destiny.? If we couldmeasure air quality in our homes, offices, neighborhoods, it wouldchange our behavior, and climate change would take on a local, personalmeaning.

As Niemeyer observes, unless we make an emotional connection to data,and unless we find that information dramatic, we tend to disregard it.Written on the Black Cloud Citizen Scientist League website is the statement, ?Pollutionis not like weather, it?s something we do.? Seeing visual models of airquality traced from Niemeyer?s Pufftrons makes invisible qualities that much more real.

?People need to sleep, and the air does too,? says Niemeyer. BlackCloud shows how we can help recover air quality with bettercirculation, more plants and less toxins. Digital citizenship, asGarcia?s high school students learned, can start with a game. It caninvolve the way we collect data, read it, share it and inevitablychange it, one deep breath at a time.

 

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