The NYU Tandon School of Engineering was buzzing with energy on July 28 — quite literally in some cases — as dozens of parents, faculty and friends joined for the Science of Smart Cities (SoSC) expo.
Smart bridge technology, solar energy innovations, climate-measuring drones and smart landfill monitors were among the displays that were shown during the expo. Though the inventors and creative minds behind the tech were of a unique demographic: rising sixth, seventh and eighth graders.
Around 65 students completed the SoSC summer camp program this year, which invites middle school students from across New York City to learn about sensors, internet of things (IoT) concepts and other elements of smart city fields. The program focuses on four main sectors: energy, transportation, urban infrastructure and wireless communication.
The summer camp, however, is not a new initiative. In fact, SoSC has been around for seven years, each year opening the doors to a new pool of students who wish to get their hands in STEM research and applications. In a 2017 interview with Smart Cities Dive, Ben Esner, SoSC founder and director of the Center for K12 STEM Education at NYU Tandon, said, "These technologies don’t stand still," and neither does the interest in them.
The 2018 class
To encourage STEM education, the SoSC program is free, supported by National Grid, Consolidated Edison, Northrop Grumman Corp. and The New York Building Foundation. However funding is limited, and only 72 spots were available this year for a pool of nearly 240 applicants.
“Because these kids are young and we’re trying to engage them in STEM, we don’t look at their grades, we don’t make them write five-page essays,” said Esner of the competitive selection process. He explained that the team looks for exposition of interests and commitment to persistence to ensure that the students who are selected will complete the program. “You can usually tell that in a couple of sentences. We’ve gotten really good at being able to tell, ‘Oh mom wrote that,’ versus the kid writing it.”
Esner also explained that the program is “super mindful about gender equity” and dedicates at least half of the slots to girls, which he says is a “particularly powerful” program element for both students and their parents.
Over the course of the four-week program, the 2018 class worked with a crew of undergraduate and graduate students across all disciplines to learn various elements of the STEM field. Esner explained that the curriculum changes every year to keep the students abreast of real life technologies and applications, such as developments in wireless communications, that are altering the smart city landscape.
“STEM developments are so vast and accelerated, that having our own people who are in these fields, they bring their own ideas,” said Esner.
After learning various applications, the students are tasked with using their “unconstrained creativity” to develop innovative smart city solutions that will be shown off at the final-day expo. The program also gives the students 10 hours of improvisation training to teach them speaking skills and help them build confidence ahead of the big expo. “It turns into something powerful,” said Esner.
A lesson for parents
For many parents or guardians of the students, smart city concepts are new.
“When we were doing this seven years ago, almost nobody had ever heard the phrase,” said Esner. “Now almost everybody has heard it … But very few people can really define it, and even fewer probably still understand anything about the technology.”
Esner said the SoSC crew encourages students to go home from the program and tell their parents or guardians about their days in an effort to educate more adults about the STEM applications. He said that teaching adults about smart cities is not what he originally set out to do when he created the SoSC program, but over the years he realized the value of that second-hand education.
"If we’re ever really going to see the widespread adoption of what we think of as smart cities technologies, people absolutely have to understand how it works, more than in a cursory way," he explained.
Esner went on to say that concerns about privacy are always going to be at the forefront of smart city development, therefore it is up to adults to educate themselves on how applications affect them: “If people really understand how the technology works and what you can do to mitigate people’s concerns about privacy and spying and intrusive government, the more widespread the adoption is gonna be and the easier it’s going to be for political leaders, for industry leaders, for others to be able to actually make this stuff real at a large scale."
Following completion of the SoSC program, students are invited to apply to the Innovation, Entrepreneurship and the Science of Smart Cities (ieSoSC) program, which builds on the SoSC curriculum by adding more technical content like cloud computing. Esner said that this year there were 25 spots open and about 80 applicants, 100% of whom had finished the first program.
"If we’re ever really going to see the widespread adoption of what we think of as smart cities technologies, people absolutely have to understand how it works, more than in a cursory way."
Founder, Science of Smart Cities
Beyond the program, Esner said it is likely to see these students continue to pursue STEM in their studies. He reflected on one student from the first cohort who went on to become a computer science major at Pace University.
“There are some kids who we definitely transform,” he said. “These are city kids, they live in cities. They suffer with the rest of us — bad subways, terrible traffic jams, high pollution days, all of the things that technologies can help address. So there is that group of young people that come here and they leave here saying ‘I want to be an engineer.’ And I think they do.”
Outside of New York, Esner’s team has worked with the National University of Malaysia to train other educators on smart city concepts and spread the SoSC program across their country. The program has proven to have cross-cultural interest and to create a civic conversation that spans class, race, ethnicity and education. Esner said universities in North America and beyond are invited to reach out and bring this type of curriculum to their classrooms.
"I’d love to see this in a thousand places. We did not invent sliced bread,” he said. “We are creative people, for sure. We work hard, for sure. We’ve mobilized our students and our faculty, yes. But we didn’t invent sliced bread. Other people can do this."