UC Berkeley News
Press Release

UC Berkeley Press Release

New digital projects teach English in India, monitor air pollution

– An online mystery game in which student sleuths will monitor air pollution in South Central Los Angeles and in Cairo, Egypt, and a project using cell phones to teach English to children in India have won funding for two University of California, Berkeley, professors.

The air pollution project designed by Greg Niemeyer, a UC Berkeley associate professor in art practice and film studies, and the India experiment headed by John Canny, a UC Berkeley professor of electrical engineering and computer science, are among 17 projects recently chosen by the Digital Media and Learning Competition and funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Each UC Berkeley project will receive the top allocation of $238,000. All of the projects, chosen from 1,010 applications, will be administered by the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC) and are expected to produce promising innovations in the use of digital media for learning.

"We are at a crucial historical juncture where technological, scientific and cultural changes leave us with both great responsibility and great opportunity," said Cathy N. Davidson of Duke University. She is co-founder of HASTAC, a consortium of more than 70 public and private research institutes across the human and computer sciences, along with David Theo Goldberg of the University of California's Humanities Research Institute.

"These awards, and the competition generally, have identified inventive technologies by which learning is networked, expanded, interactive, and engaged," said Goldberg. "This is the give-and-take of learning at its very best."

Greg Niemeyer
Greg Niemeyer (Wendy Edelstein photo)
Niemeyer's "Black Cloud" mystery game will be launched at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles by English instructor Antero Garcia in early July with classroom instruction and field trips. In Egypt, the game will get played at El Sawy Cultural Center, with the assistance of Cairo's Zamalek Fine Arts College, during the peak of the country's October and November pollution season,.

Niemeyer plans to run the game later in Shanghai, China and Lake Geneva, Switzerland, and hopes to license it for use in high schools across the United States. He also intends to post the basic game online, along with the test schools' related Web sites, to illustrate different cultures' social responses to environmental conditions.

Niemeyer said the game originated during a discussion he had in Cairo about climate change in which he learned about the "Black Cloud" of pollution that hits the Egyptian capital during the fall rice harvest.

Egyptian students will scour their neighborhoods for hidden wireless air quality sensors that are dispatching real-time information about local pollution and must learn to read graphs, associate air quality data with human activities, and develop an understanding of the local pollution landscape. They also will interview residents, post songs and video clips, maintain a blog about their work and document socio-economic elements of pollution. They will make public presentations about their work, and one student will receive a $5,000 stewardship award to give to a local climate improvement group of his or her choosing.

John Canny
John Canny (Peg Skorpinski photo)
Meanwhile, Canny's project, Mobile and Immersive Learning for Literacy in Emerging Economies, uses educational games to help improve literacy among children in rural India.

"This project focuses on learning English, which is one of two national languages in India and considered a key to socioeconomic success, but we believe the lessons could be transferred to other languages as well," said Canny.

Canny pointed out that it is not effective to parachute Western-influenced programs into rural areas where children may have had little exposure to video games. That is why the project's goal is to develop digital learning games that are culturally appropriate by taking inspiration from traditional games played in rural villages, he said.

Mobile phones were chosen as the platform for the games because they are more prevalent and accessible in developing countries than computers, researchers said.

"Cell phones are the PCs of the developing world," said Canny. "It's the fastest growing technology platform in the region. Roughly half of school-age children in India do not attend school regularly, primarily because they are kept home to help with domestic or farm work. We think that using cell phones as a platform could help children maintain a connection to educational resources when they are out of the classroom."

Notably, the majority of games will be audio-only so that they can be used by a child who may be engaged in repetitive, manual work.

Both UC Berkeley grant recipients are affiliated with the campus's Center for New Media and are researchers at the Berkeley Institute of Design, a campus research group that fosters an interdisciplinary approach to innovative design that spans human-computer interaction, mechanical design, education, architecture and art practice.

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