The Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP)
The Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP)
The poster was collaboratively created by CUP, teaching artist Samantha Contis, and a group of public high school students; it was designed and typeset in six languages by Benjamin Critton. The project has been used to educate young people about NYC’s electricity infrastructure and to facilitate community meetings on energy.
"Power Trip" is a large-scale poster and booklet that visualizes the long journey New York City’s electricity takes from raw natural resources to our power outlets. The poster was collaboratively created by CUP, teaching artist Samantha Contis, and a group of public high school students; it was designed and typeset in six languages by Benjamin Critton. The project has been used to educate young people about NYC’s electricity infrastructure and to facilitate community meetings on energy.2. The Brief: Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the context for the project, and what was the challenge posed to you?
Electricity is so embedded in every part of our day that we hardly think about it. Until it fails. Last fall, when substations exploded and power lines crashed down, the New York metro area went suddenly dark. Hurricane Sandy’s blackouts exposed the choke-points in our energy infrastructure. Faced with the fragility of our system, it’s important to examine how energy gets to us. Where does our electricity come from? And where do individuals fit into this large and complex system? To find answers to these questions, CUP, teaching artist Samantha Contis, and a group of NYC public high school students followed the current on a whirlwind investigative tour of the energy supply chain. The team of collaborators researched and analyzed New York City’s electricity infrastructure, and translated those difficult to understand steps into simple and compelling visuals.3. The Intent: What point of view did you bring to the project, and were there additional criteria that you added to the brief?
"Power Trip" emerged from an Urban Investigation – CUP’s experiential afterschool programs that enable high school students to explore fundamental questions about how the city works, using collaborative research and design. The investigation began with the key question, “how does electricity get to me?” Students then went out into the field to interview energy experts and see our electricity infrastructure first-hand. They visited utility company headquarters, an upstate transmission monitoring center, and numerous power plants across the boroughs. They created a booklet and poster to share what they learned on their trip across the power grid.4. The Process: Describe the rigor that informed your project. (Research, ethnography, subject matter experts, materials exploration, technology, iteration, testing, etc., as applicable.) What stakeholder interests did you consider? (Audience, business, organization, labor, manufacturing, distribution, etc., as applicable)
Most of the students who participated in “Power Trip” attend Aviation High School in Queens. While they were familiar with the mechanical basics of electricity (charge, current, battery storage) they knew little about the electricity distribution system. The group learned about the system by diving into it head-first. The teaching artist and CUP staff trained students in investigative journalism, placing particular emphasis on developing interviewing skills. Students learned how to take photographs, record audio, shoot video, and take in-depth notes. The group started with background readings on the issue and then travelled across the city to interview a variety of decision makers. They spoke to the people who make the power plants run, who manage the state’s energy exchange market, and who go down manholes when there’s a problem. They returned to the studio with the raw info and began processing it visually: breaking it down into understandable elements so more people can visualize how the system works. During the collaboration, CUP helped the teaching artists guide students in the process of gleaning information from various community stakeholders, which is often a new experience. The design process is a deeply collaborative one. Teaching artists and students are asked to dig deep into local issues in order to really understand the issue so that they can create tools that break down the problem in a fun and easy to understand way. The crew created a poster and booklet to explain what they learned along the "Power Trip." These teaching tools were field tested with an environmental education organization, and fact-checked by a researcher, a community organization, and an employee of NYISO (New York state’s grid operator). The bilingual poster and booklet will be distributed through the Queens Public Library, and used in classrooms by science, technology, and environmental education groups like Solar One. Because this project was created with other students in mind, design and drawing were key to making this heavy topic inviting to fellow students. The poster was envisioned as a diagram which could show the entirety of the system all at once—so that viewers could understand the connections between the natural resources they consume (on the top level) and the specifics of their daily energy usage (on an individual level). CUP designed the poster to be printed, so that it could hang in a classroom, and be returned to throughout the year as a touchstone, and could easily travel to meetings, and from school to school for environmental educators.5. The Value: How does your project earn its keep in the world? What is its value? What is its impact? (Social, educational, economic, paradigm-shifting, sustainable, environmental, cultural, gladdening, etc.)
By participating in Urban Investigations, like “Power Trip,” students gain the skills to investigate their own communities. They gain access to the decision-makers that affect the world around them; engage in active citizenship; and learn how to creatively communicate their ideas through design. The product of their learning process is a visual tool that finds a real audience in communities outside of the school. “Power Trip” has been translated from English into Spanish, Bengali, Korean, Chinese, and Arabic. The poster has been extremely useful to start conversations with communities about the energy landscape and what part of the system is most important to them— this helps them identify organizing priorities. This is especially important for non-English-speaking communities who are often excluded from understanding and participating in official discussions because of language barriers. In the long term, this will be critically important, as community advocacy can lead to better distribution of resources and to policy change. The “Power Trip” project is centered around public education. The process of creating the poster provided an experiential learning experience for Queens public high school students who in turn used it to educate their peers in a youth-led workshop at the Queens Public Library. The completed poster and booklet educates New Yorkers about where their electricity comes from, where responsibility for its production and use lies, and where choices can be made — by energy providers, by government, and by consumers.