This summer, while other seventh graders were playing Minecraft, one small group of middle school students built tiny cities in real life, complete with working smart cars, prototypes of universal Wi-Fi, and miniature working windmills.
The Science of Smart Cities, a free four-week class at NYU Polytechnic’s School of Engineering, teaches local New York students how to build sustainable urban infrastructure and then lets them work together to design model cities of the future.
The students started with simple experiments with balloons and string but quickly moved on to building working solar chargers and generators from scratch. In a week about infrastructure, they experimented with better ways to build landfills. Another week, they built model cars with automatic braking and lane detection.
“They really broadened the concepts and applied them in all sorts of creative ways,” says Ben Esner, director of the school’s center for K-12 STEM Education. “We said, ‘You know conceptually about clean energy, good landfill design, good urban planning principles, so what would you do with that?'”
As the students built out their miniature cities, they carefully considered how each piece of infrastructure could interact with what was next to it, creating optimal systems. One group of students, for example, built algae towers to support their city’s transportation system, to save space, cut production costs, and reduce the city’s carbon footprint. As they worked, they started to look at New York City differently.
“We were thinking about smart cities, which means cities that can be efficient and safe,” says Devon Allen, who will be entering the eighth grade this fall. “And looking around, New York isn’t really yet.”
“These are young people that ride the subway every day, and they cross the street, and they consume energy and all of these things that are really real to them,” says Esner. “So by looking at engineering and science through the lens of how it can be applied to where they live and their daily quality of life, it’s really very engaging.”
It’s also inspiring the students to pursue careers as engineers and someday try to redesign the world. “When I first came here, I had a basic concept of Newton’s laws and energy,” says Victoria Millette, who is also going into eighth grade. “But this exposed me to how we can use it today to make something smart for our entire civilization.”