The Magic School Bus

Bringing Wi-Fi, 3-D printing, and other tech to underserved communities.

The San Francisco Public Library’s Techmobile.
The San Francisco Public Library’s Techmobile, with a computer lab, Wi-fi, and instructors on board, travels to underserved neighborhoods to offer lessons in basic computing applications, block-based coding, Lego robotics, and 3-D printing.

Courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library

Before retired teacher Estella Pyfrom, 78, would answer questions about her “Brilliant Bus,” a computer-packed rig she drives to take education technology to Florida’s most underserved communities, she made this point: “This is not just a bus. It’s a movement.”

Pyfrom is a long way from her oft-stated dream of a Brilliant Bus in every city. But the movement is real, and it’s rolling. Increasingly, leaders from nonprofits, schools, and libraries have stared down that infamous “last mile” between the digital haves and have-nots and thought, “Why not drive it?”

A mix of Wi-Fi-enabled buses and mobile computer labs has hit America’s streets. Some of these vehicles act simply as roving Internet hot spots. Others ferry educational software, coding, and robotics workshops to city parks, churches, and youth groups serving communities in danger of being left behind. But the demand is huge, and technology on wheels isn’t cheap. How far can the movement go?

Start with the basics. Broadband Internet is the lifeblood of education technology, but tens of millions of American students don’t have access to it, either in school or in their homes. More than 90 percent of households with six-figure incomes had broadband, according to 2013 Census Bureau figures, compared with 47 percent of households earning below $25,000. In response, public libraries across the country have turned their bookmobiles into Wi-Fi beacons.

In Kokomo, Indiana, the bookmobile beams out free Internet in low-income neighborhoods. In Providence, Rhode Island, the bookmobile lends out 4G mobile hot spots to patrons. In Washington, D.C., a city initiative called Connect.DC converted a bookmobile into a Mobile Tech Lab that community groups can summon for free Wi-Fi and computer access.

The San Francisco Public Library also left the books behind last spring and launched Techmobile, a computer lab and Wi-Fi hotspot with instructors on board, to offer lessons in basic computing applications, block-based coding, Lego robotics, and 3-D printing.

Even in this tech mecca, “there’s a huge digital divide,” said Shawna Sherman, the Techmobile services librarian. “We’re getting so many requests for service.”

Several school districts have tried a similar approach with Wi-Fi on school buses. Mobile Internet vendors such as SinglePoint, Mushroom Networks, Cradlepoint, and Alcatel-Lucent report a rising interest in school bus Wi-Fi, which typically costs about $1,000 per bus upfront, plus monthly data fees. But adoption is slow, in part because federal e-rate subsidies for educational Internet can’t be used for buses or other off-campus applications. Oddly enough, bookmobiles are eligible for e-rate, because they’re considered a mini branch of the library.

It’s one thing to hear statistics about the digital divide. It’s another to see the problem unfold before your eyes, as it did for the leaders of Chicago’s “City of Learning” initiative. Last spring, they mapped out the thousands of after-school activities available for local students at libraries, museums, parks, and youth clubs.

“We started to see these technology deserts. There were neighborhoods where there was hardly any digital literacy or [anything] computational happening,” said Amy Eshleman, partnership director for the Digital Youth Network, which heads up Chicago City of Learning. Not surprisingly, these technology deserts were often in lower-income neighborhoods with more minority and immigrant residents.

So, Eshleman and her colleagues rented a van they christened “Destination Chicago.” With the help of the mayor’s office and donations from Best Buy, they plugged in a Wi-Fi hotspot and loaded the van with MacBooks, a printer, a projector, and trained digital “mentors” to help kids learn block-based coding, video game design, and other computational skills. Destination Chicago went on a whistlestop tour of summer camps, libraries, and churches. On Mondays, it roamed wherever it was requested, setting up its computer workstations under tents as a digital outpost in street festivals and parks.

High demand for the van pushed a four-week pilot into an all-summer affair, and then into September. Still, it was just a pilot, and the van is on hiatus until next summer.

“It was great to be able to meet these kids where they are, and to watch them develop interest and passion for coding and making that they may not have even known they had,” said Eshleman. “The challenge is how to keep those youth engaged even though the van’s not there.”

Indeed, mobility can be a double-edged sword. Tech vans and buses can go anywhere, but they can’t be everywhere, and they don’t stick around.

Zach Leverenz, the CEO of EveryoneOn, a nonprofit working to combat the digital divide, applauds the mobile-tech initiatives but also sees them as “stopgap measures.”

“Anything that solves the problem for today is a good thing,” he said. “But are [tech vans and buses] sustainable, cost-efficient, and scalable? No. The long-term view has to be about creating a right to affordable broadband access that is federally subsidized, like electricity and telephones were once subsidized.”

But talk with Pyfrom, who turned down a leisurely retirement for the Brilliant Bus, and you sense this movement is not to be underestimated. Typically, the bus provides students from technology-poor schools with computer-based tutoring in core subjects. More recently, it has offered coding and robotics workshops.

Pyfrom used her pension to get the Brilliant Bus launched in 2011. Since then, the bus has been supported by Kickstarter campaigns and larger contributions that followed high-profile awards from the likes of CNN, Oprah Winfrey, and Microsoft, which featured the Brilliant Bus in a 2015 Super Bowl ad.

Earlier this year, Pyfrom launched a second bus that will start traveling around the Northeast this fall. She hopes to add a third bus next year. At the same time, she’s rallying like-minded organizations to hitch their expertise and resources to her movement.

Last summer, the bus ferried student coders to the #YesWeCode hackathon in New Orleans, stopping for student events in four states along the way. Early next year, New Jersey–based Kidz Hub Media Network will send “junior broadcasters” to both cover the bus and go on board for digital media training. Meanwhile, students from Philadelphia’s STEMnasium Learning Academy, an afterschool program for science, math, engineering and coding, are making a Brilliant Bus mobile app that will hook students into learning activities and events even when they’re not on board.

“Ms. Estella has a great idea. But what makes it scalable is the partnerships,” said STEMnasium founder Tariq Al-Nasir. “That way, after the bus leaves a community, there’s some sticky left.”

“I don’t want to just teach kids how to use computers,” said Pyfrom. “It has to be linked to something bigger.”

This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate