Students Discover the Science Behind Smart Cities

The Center for K-12 STEM Education at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly) focuses on providing science, technology, engineering and mathematics — the so-called “STEM” disciplines — to K-12 students and teachers. In the final week of its month-long Science of Smart Cities (SoSC) program, the center’s 36 middle school participants were treated to a field trip at the downtown Brooklyn offices of Northrop Grumman, a leading global security company. Each week addressed a different theme in contemporary urban topics (energy, transportation, communication, and food and sustenance) until students were encouraged to build a “smart city” of their own.

“From Poly’s perspective, this day is a model,” said Ben Esner, Director of the Center. “We don’t want to just call faculty to give a talk. We want companies to be engaged in teaching what they know.”

Northrop Grumman engineers focused their instruction on the wireless communication technology benefitting not just consumers, but also the public sector. The presentations were followed by interactive workshops led by Northrop Grumman employees. At one, manager Stephen Cahnmann talked about modems that could solve traffic issues and streamline cities’ disaster response systems. The high level of engagement from his audience gave him hope for the field’s future workforce. “It’s crucial to keep a fresh pipeline of the ones who will have the next big idea,” he said.

The day concluded with a Think Tank Activity, which asked students to work in groups to develop an application to make their city function better or “smarter.” Partnered with a company engineer, each group came up with applications or presentation to a panel of judges from Northrop Grumman and New York City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT), who scored the presentations on criteria such as the clarity and creativity of the application, as well as its cost or feasibility.

Eventually a winner was decided: a group that proposed bringing WiFi to subway platforms by taking advantage of communications systems already in place.

Students at NYU-Poly and alumni were similarly rewarded. Instructors of the SoSC program—all students at NYU-Poly—guided the middle schoolers on a weekly basis. Program director Dominick Dennisur, a mechanical engineering student at NYU-Poly, said, “The group definitely experienced our fair share of challenges, but staying in the classrooms late into the night preparing activities for the week was all worth it when seeing the joy on the students’ faces when they did those activities.”

For instructor Howard Jiang, a senior in civil engineering, the program was “a game changer when it comes to personal growth. It allowed me to develop a new level of confidence and ability to communicate engineering and scientific principles,” he said. The most meaningful part of the experience for Jiang, though, was sharing his love of engineering with students.

Jiang may be pleased to know that his charges began to imagine possible futures as engineers. “We made a wireless car. Makes me want to be an engineer,” said Stiven, 12.

“It feels like I already am an engineer,” his classmate Ezron, 13, chimed in.