Mobile phones, DIY science labs, and agency

Everyone knows that in the last decade or so, smartphones have become part of daily life for most of us, and for many it’s become the primary computing experience, ahead of computers or even tablets. If you follow the development of technology more closely however, you might also have noticed that the domain of “mobile” in general has had an even larger impact. The sheer volume of these devices (billion upon billion) has brought down the price of small cameras, various processors, GPS, gyroscopes, resistant glass, high density displays, and more. Drones and home assistants (Google Home, Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod), to name just those examples, wouldn’t be as cheap if it weren’t for the downward price impact of manufacturing all those high quality smartphones.

Of course, that same scale also plays in the hand of the phones themselves, these pocket super-computers now integrate dozens of censors of various types and can be used as the base upon which all kinds of other applications can be built. Google Science Journal gives us a glimpse of what’s possible.

Using the phone’s embedded sensors, a variety of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) activities and projects can be developed for engineering or technical learning environments. … Moreover, the measurements can be recorded, saved, and imported to an Excel spreadsheet for further analysis and observations. Notes and pictures of physical test and measurement setups can be documented.

Now that the Journal has been transferred to the Open Source Arduino hardware platform, it’s also possible to mix those science experiments with DIY (Do It Yourself) electronics and the sensors of a smartphone.

[T]he [science] kit provides a range of electronic sensors to measure light, temperature, motion, and magnetic fields for measuring physical world stimuli. With the Arduino Science Journal, the mobile app can be enhanced using an Arduino Nano 33 BLE Sense or IoT boards as external sensors.

These kinds of possibilities are interesting for the Fab City in at least two ways. First, science kits and electronics like the above can play an important role in kids’ literacy in STEAM, and computing more generally. A basic understanding of the computers multiplying around us is proving to be an essential competence to understand the world. Second, at a more advanced level these equipments are used to prototype, or even put to permanent use, solutions leveraging technology for citizens, making possible collaborative and community projects that can have a “bottom up” impact in our cities. Agency for kids to understand the world, and agency for communities to influence their locality.