SMS+ Science Messaging System

Project Dates: 2020 – present

Science Messaging System

An essential component of STEM education is participation in authentic inquiry-learning activities. Providing students with access to inquiry-based activities and adequate support while engaged in those activities has proven challenging in the new reality of remote learning.

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the limitations of existing educational infrastructure to adapt and deliver high quality instruction to children across the socio-economic spectrum outside of a physical school setting.

Of particular concern are issues of equity for low-income children who often lack a stable device, internet access and a high limit data plan. Reforms in STEM education that require practice-based approaches have already placed high technological and logistical demands on classrooms. During a disruption such as the COVID-19 pandemic, when the locus of education shifts away from physical schools to homes, these infrastructural demands shift to individual families further aggravating existing socio-economic inequities. Studies have shown that a large proportion of children in low-income households in the US have limited or no access to high-speed broadband internet or to dedicated computers/devices for long term usage at home.

Because increasingly frequent disruptions to in-person schooling are expected beyond the current health crisis due to a wide variety of causes stemming from the effects of climate change (fires, floods), increased political instability and unprecedented levels of displacement worldwide, among other drivers, the investment in and development of robust, high quality, low cost, pedagogically sound, scalable alternatives are imperative.


The goal of the SMS+ Science Messaging System research program is to systematically examine and develop a low-cost, mobile phone-based approach to at-home, inquiry-driven science learning. SMS+ will support real-time, interactive, message-based STEM activities for which the only computational resource required is the family’s mobile phone. 

Rigorous research studies will underpin an examination of the capabilities of students, parents and teachers while working with the novel text message and inquiry-based pedagogy. In addition, the curriculum redesign process of teachers will be studied to identify design principles and guidelines for the development of a generalized framework to support the translation of traditional content and pedagogy into text-message applicable formats. 

SMS+ is focused to deliver, monitor, and offer support for inquiry-based activities (not lectures or pre-package content) at home in the context of a “barebones” technological infrastructure. The educator-facing interface for SMS+ will include a scripting tool to structure and input inquiry-based curriculum units as well as dashboards to collect responses, track student activity, and monitor progress toward learning goals. For students, interaction with SMS+ will happen via common text-messaging systems. Students, either working with an adult or by themselves, will be guided through inquiry-based, hands-on STEM activities through text messages and will be prompted to articulate concepts and reflect. They will use the family phone to take pictures, record audio and video, and share the partial and final results of their investigations with classmates and teachers.


Team Members

Paulo Blikstein (PI)

Lydia Chilton (co-PI), Computer Science Department, Columbia University

Tamar Fuhrmann

Jonathan Pang

Livia Macedo

Diana Garcia



Richard Davis

Engin Bumbacher



Support is provided through the Technology Innovations for Urban Living in the Face of COVID-19 program made possible by Columbia University Trustee and Columbia Engineering Board of Visitors Member, Dean Dakolias ’89.



For more information, please contact Tamar Fuhrmann (