Creative Learning

Prototyping updates on a new Project Zub

Unstructured Studio

In this post we introduce Project Zub - our early experiments focusing on amplifying the voices of young makers in underprivileged communities.

Inspiration

In the summer of 2019, we visited the Agastya Foundation – a non-profit organization that focuses on hands-on science education for children in underprivileged settings. On our long plane ride back home to California, we read 50 inspiring stories of Agastya children who have built low-cost tools intending to help themselves and their local community. These have been compiled in the Agastya’s Blazing Fireflies book and document the amazing work of young creators such as an innovative solution to help local women draw water from the well, a campaign in the village to gather waste materials for science projects for everyone at Agastya, and even a music player built using electronic waste!

Motivated by these amazing stories, some ideas started cooking up in our heads and questions started popping up:

  • Could there be a way to amplify such work which otherwise is restricted to books? Is there a way their innovative projects could reach a much wider audience?
  • Is there an opportunity to develop a platform that helps children to document and showcase their projects, following a bit of structure (but still providing them creative freedom) - and in this process helps them develop creative expression and storytelling skills?
  • Would this platform & process ultimately make them more confident, creative, and curious learners?

Preliminary Research

Before venturing any further, we tried to understand how the educational models for economically disadvantaged children (like Agastya’s) project showcasing. We realize this is an important aspect - it increases the reach of children's work and opens up numerous opportunities for them. Usually, workshop organizers are trained with photography skills to capture a science workshop, and models students develop, and later share on social media. An Indian educator Arvind Gupta has a fascinating collection of toys made from trash uploaded on his YouTube account. Creativity in these communities is also being tapped with projects/awards such as IGNITE, Intel ISEF, NSERC Young Innovators etc. which encourages youth to develop creative solutions to complex problems. In addition, various other platforms and online communities exist which also help in listing and highlighting projects that students do.

In the models discussed above, we identified some possible shortcomings - there is a lack of standardization the way student innovation is presented and disseminated where opportunities still exist to support coherent storytelling. To explore this further, we looked into communities for young kids around making such as DIY.org, littleBits, JAM started in the US. These platforms do a terrific job of engaging learners in a variety of activities around making through coursework, projects, feedback sharing, followers feature, etc. While efforts are underway, we identified a few problems in this space. The design & development of most of the tools and initiatives often start from and for urban kids and takes decades to reach rural or less-privileged kids. We also feel that sometimes such platforms can be culturally less relevant given the massive diversity of learners in this world.

As we moved further in pursuit of an ideal solution, we started looking at existing documentation platforms around making, especially – Build in Progress and Spin developed by Tiffany Tseng at the MIT Media Lab as part of her Ph.D. dissertation: Making Make-Throughs. In the initial brainstorming phase of our project, we considered some of the future ideas for building upon the work of these platforms as proposed by the inventor:

  • Allowing sharing of different contexts and a wider variety of projects
  • Combining physical and digital workflows
  • Documenting in more fun ways (e.g., through videos).

We believed we had enough material by this time to actually begin something instead of making imaginary castles in our head.

Initial Working Prototype

Initial Working PrototypeTo quickly test out some of our theories, we began working on an initial prototype of a video-based documentation platform. We chose to develop this as a mobile application first, since they are the easiest way to capture videos and are ubiquitous in developing environments while being easily accessible to young learners. We called this app as Zub (short for zubaan (ज़ुबान), the Urdu word for voice). The goal of this app is to give voice to those unheard stories that the young folks want to tell about the amazing projects they build!

We outlined the bare minimum requirements for this initial prototype with some key elements that the mobile application should have:

  1. Ability to record videos with audio of the bits and pieces of the project on which young learners are working on
  2. Encourage them to loosely structure their video documentation which ensures a largely consistent and comprehensible style of the outcome
  3. Provide them freedom to experiment with the app and in the process help the learners develop effective video documentation techniques

The grand idea was that once the learners have finished developing their projects, they would record a video of their project explaining what they did. This seems simple and can be easily achieved with a default camera app on today’s smartphones. What new could then Zub bring to the table? Recording a single video via a default camera app with no limit on what to speak and for how long might not be helpful for a learner in getting started and may also lead to non-uniform videos. After much back-and-forth among ourselves and emptying many cups of coffee in the cafes of Oakland, we came up with the idea to nudge learners towards structuring their video documentation – we help them record videos with audio in parts highlighting various aspects of the project and then merge the results later on. It would help them structure their thoughts, rethink the process from how they began (Motivation), to the materials they used while building their projects (Materials) to the process of describing how the different pieces were put together (Making). All three of these parts are separate videos intended to be recorded as part of creating a final video.

The intended flow is presented to the learners as 3 screens in the app named 1, 2 and 3 (suggesting that it could be a simple 3-step process). A big button would allow the videos to be recorded and audio overlayed later on with a separate audio recording button.

We hope that this will not only make it easier for children to document their projects but also result in videos that are semi-structured, engaging and easier to consume!

The app has been developed using React Native for cross portability and has been tested on Android 7+ and iOS devices. We are very early and of course everything is subject to change, but it gives a certain amount of joy to see Zub out in the open and especially in the hands of young creators.

Oh, and yes, Zub is Open Source: https://github.com/unstructuredstudio/zub

Field Trials

Since most of the initial work is done, we've become a bit more confident to try this out in the open. We recently included video documentation with Zub as part of an activity conducted with Agastya Foundation. An upcoming post would go in details about our experience and learning there.

We are a team of two humans having fun designing & developing creative learning tools. If you have some amazing ideas and want to share your opinions, reach out to us: hello@unstructured.studio
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