High-School Students Explore the Impact of Technology within Their Communities

May 1, 2000

"Maybe makeup is a technology," I found myself saying, secretly elated that my two research colleagues had brought up the point. We were discussing toxic waste from cosmetics manufacturing, and the students in Ms. Kleinman's ninth-grade English 1 class had questioned whether makeup fit our definition of technology. This was my fifth visit to Ms. Kleinman's class at Union Hill High School, where the students had been commissioned by the Center for Children and Technology (CCT) to do research reports about technology in their communities.

For the past eight years, researchers at CCT have been privileged to be part of the multifaceted technology integration and reform efforts underway in Union City, New Jersey. As an associate project director at CCT, I manage the day-to-day aspects of a three-year research project with Union Hill High. A central part of our focus has been the impact of technology (in this case, primarily portable computers) in students' lives. We have conducted interviews with students, distributed surveys to them, directed observations of their classrooms, and spent a significant amount of time just hanging out with them. All of this has been in an effort to learn how they think about and use technology. Last year we realized that the students have been informants of our research but they have not been our collaborators. To rectify that situation, we wanted to attempt something new. We decided to engage young people as researchers, encouraging them to explore the role that technology plays in their communities and in their lives.

Using our existing evaluation of a laptop program in Union Hill High School as a starting point, we approached one of the teachers, inviting her to collaborate with us on the project. She was extremely open to working with us and was eager to give her students the opportunity to speak from their own perspectives and in their own words. At her suggestion, we decided to focus on her ninth-grade English 1 class, thus launching our first authentic research project with 15 ninth graders in Union City. The project has been both fun and worthwhile, giving us greater insight into how young people think about technology. We also have learned a lot about ourselves and what we can do to make this a richer experience the next time we delve into authentic research with high-school students. Although the students are still furiously engaged in their projects-we plan to feature their finished work on our Web site-some of our observations are worth sharing while they are still fresh.

The Community

Union City is a small but densely populated city primarily composed of immigrant families. The population is mostly Latino, but there are growing communities from Mediterranean Africa and India. All 15 students in the English 1 class are immigrants, or children of immigrants, from Latin America and the Caribbean.

What We Hoped to Accomplish

We began our project with two goals. First, we wanted the students to become critical thinkers about technology. Second, we wanted them to express their own perspectives about technology, learning how to clearly communicate to us and to one another their beliefs and attitudes. Because all ninth-grade students at Union Hill are required to produce a standard library research paper, the CCT research project was integrated into their English 1 requirements. Rather than assigning an open-ended research paper, however, we asked the students to do field work and to select a topic related to the technology in their lives. As an additional challenge, because this was the students' general English class, during the research project, they had to keep up with other responsibilities such as reading Romeo and Juliet and Frankenstein and preparing for standardized tests.

Meeting the Researchers

Our first activity was to meet the students, present the project, and hold a brainstorming session. I told the class about the work we do at CCT, gave them my business card, showed them some of the reports that we had written about Union City, and asked them if they would accept the commission to do this research. The students were excited and perhaps a little intimidated about doing "real" research.

Our initial conversation turned toward the meaning of technology. Like many adults, these students had an uncritical view of technology. Technology was usually understood as something that made life easier. Their analysis did not extend beyond listing technologies. At this point, they saw technology neither as a force that shaped their lives nor as something they helped shape.

Developing Critical Perspectives

As a research team, the class and I started to unpack the terms technology and technological artifacts in a brainstorming session during two class periods. To start provocative discussions, CCT often uses a broad definition of technology as "all of the artifacts, environments, and systems created by humans for their own benefit." We usually underscore the designed nature of technological artifacts, because that opens the door to inviting students to be designers of technology. When I first asked the students to list some technologies in their lives, they came up with the standard responses of television, telephones, and computers. Holding up my pen, I said that this was perhaps the most important and ubiquitous technology ever invented. I offered that not only are pens designed, but the easy ability to write, communicate, share ideas, and create written records to expand human memory radically transformed human society. After that, the students' list of technologies began to expand to cars, stoves, medicines, and missiles. Next, we began to categorize technologies by function: transportation, communication, health care, warfare. The students soon realized that technologies cover the breadth of human activities, and more importantly, that those explicitly designed artifacts shape the world in which they live.

At this point, the budding researchers were merely identifying more and more technologies present in their lives. I was having trouble getting them across that intellectual bridge from observation to critical analysis. It wasn't until one of the students asked about a car wash, of all things, that this crossover began to take place. One of the students asked if a car wash was a technology. As a combination of artifacts and processes, we decided it was. Then she wondered if the slick green foam from the local car wash was toxic. She introduced toxic waste as a negative byproduct of our technologies. The students began to reflect on negative and positive effects of technology.

Still, I wanted the students to acquire a sociological understanding of how technologies can shape our relations with other people and how different people use the same technologies in different ways. I asked how much time they spend on the phone. I also asked what their parents thought of their attachment to that technology. In response, I received a universal groan of recognition. I then inquired why their parents use the phone. Most of the students did not know. When I suggested that maybe their parents used the phone to discuss the same topics as the students, many of them balked, believing that most certainly was not the case. So with a little prodding, they began to identify their parents' uses for the phone: business, arranging appointments, shopping, family. That led the students to discover and discuss how functionality influences use.

We moved on to explore their own telephone use. One girl reflected that she used the phone for hours to talk with the friend she had just seen on the street. Another student said the phone allowed her to chat with friends, because she was not allowed out after dark. Other students noted that their grandmothers never stayed on the phone for long. And one girl said she did not like to talk on the phone with her boyfriend because if he really liked her, he would visit. The students got it! They understood that telephones filled different functions. Although telephones are for talking, people communicate for different purposes in different ways, and patterns of use might lead to social tension. The students were beginning to understand that the interesting questions about technology are as much about the human context as about the nuts and bolts.

Student Research Topics and Collecting Data

During the next week, the student researchers divided into teams and selected topics for their research papers. The theme of technology and community was broad enough for all students to find interesting and manageable topics. Because the scope of the project spanned from technology's sociological effects, to its environmental effects, to the technical aspects, most students could find a topic that meshed with their interests and aptitudes.

The topics the students chose covered violence in the media, automobiles, toxic waste, telephones, video games, hackers, and Y2K. On my next visit to the class, we discussed field research techniques: surveys, observations, and interviews. Most of the students chose to do either surveys or interviews, perhaps because those techniques are familiar to them from popular news media. At this point, I met with the teams to help them develop questions. The challenge was to develop questions that required more than simple yes or no answers. Initially, many students wanted unanimity among the responses, thinking that that made the responses more accurate. We returned to the phone example to talk about how fascinating the contrasting beliefs were between parents and teens. We discussed how the question "Do you own a phone?" is not very interesting by itself, but followed up by "What do you use the phone for?" it makes the survey more interesting. We discussed the differences between posing the question "What video games do you play?" and the question "Why do you play those video games?"


Throughout the project, the students demonstrated their motivation and self-direction. For example, one research team actually designed and administered their survey to 30 people before we started to design surveys in class, and another team asked if their research paper could go beyond the 10-page limit. Also, there was a renewed burst of enthusiasm after we took one group's draft and did a mockup of the final publication format. The students were impressed to see their work professionally published with a cover. The realization that their work was going to be published and disseminated caused many students to revise and expand their first drafts.


Several challenges emerged as the students began conducting authentic research. The first challenge was helping the students strengthen their ability to analyze and interpret real data. Because the project was embedded in an English class, there was a limit to how far we could occupy classtime to help the students dig deeper into their findings. Students frequently made interesting observations about their data but lacked confidence in their interpretations. For instance, one team noticed different phone uses according to gender but was hesitant to include that finding in its report. A member of another team identified different patterns of car ownership between Union City and his previous hometown in rural America. Both teams were hesitant to incorporate their analyses because it was "just their idea."

Another challenge occurred when the students encountered too much information and found themselves struggling to narrow the scopes of their projects. The research team working on toxic waste found volumes of information. Consequently, they had difficulty defining a manageable topic that they could turn into a sociological study. I asked them to tell me off the top of their heads what one aspect about their research had surprised, saddened, or affected them. They had been surprised about the harmful effects of cosmetics production. That led them to a discussion about why people use makeup, the moral choices involved in that decision, and people's lack of knowledge about the cosmetics industry.

Concluding the papers was another challenge. All of the students wanted to end their papers with a bang. That temptation led many of them to introduce new and exciting ideas at the end of their papers. For example, the conclusion of the draft produced by a team working on cellular phones focused on the health concerns of using cell phones-something that was missing from the body of the paper. As a result, we discussed the function of a conclusion in a research paper and the difference between dramatic tension and a sound research discussion.

Our Conclusion

Because the project will not be completed until the end of this school year, we have not yet read what the young researchers have discovered. Despite not knowing the final results, engaging students in authentic research around the topic of technology has been a powerful experience-for the students and for us. The excitement, motivation, and eventually, the critical analyses that the students brought to this project suggests that this could be worthwhile experience for others, especially for those in schools rushing to wire classrooms, surrounding themselves with even more technology worthy of contemplation.


To learn more about the Center for Children and Technology's work in Union City, its work on design more generally, or to visit Union City Online, see the following:

Email: Daniel Light


Daniel Light