New York City College of Technology, City Tech, is using its downtown Brooklyn New York setting at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge as an interdisciplinary laboratory for first year students. The project, Brooklyn Waterfront 2050 is using the unique setting of the Brooklyn waterfront and its history shaped by 19th and 20th century industrial production, factories, chemical plants, wharves and shipyards of the once vibrant port to examine the legacy of environmental degradation and the challenges posed by modern climate change. City Tech faculty, together with faculty from the Urban Design Lab at the Earth Institute of Columbia University, develop engaging course curriculum to help students scientifically contextualize critically examine public issues in environmental remediation design. The project uses the integrated tools of multiple disciplines--biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, engineering and architecture--to explore important questions about the impact of climate change on port cities. The Brooklyn waterfront is used by students as a live text and work with real-time data. This urban field work has the potential to contribute to many different research questions such as local variations in urban heat island intensity and impacts of heat islands on local precipitation. Columbia University faculty facilitate City Tech's faculty development seminars through presentation of their research on core topics and respond to curriculum units created by City Tech faculty. Faculty Professional Development seminars are open to all City Tech faculty so both the information and the approach to pedagogy impact the college beyond the development of one course. An expanding circle of students are taking the course and subsequently more underrepresented students are being exposed to career options in STEM fields. The course adds depth to the dialogue on climate change and urban sustainability.

Project Report

Over four years, Brooklyn Waterfront 2050 generated outcomes demonstrating intellectual merit and potential broader impact of this exploratory project. These outcomes are highlighted below the following project objectives: 1. Student Learning: Increase the STEM literacy of first-year students by engaging them in rigorous, hands-on interdisciplinary courses that requires them to apply integrative thinking to the definition and solution of real-world environmental problems. Pre/post-assessment of student course experience showed that, there is a significance increase in knowledge and awareness of environmental issues (see attached analyses for Fall 2014). "A highlight was learning about our impact on the world. I’ve had a mindset change–that I can, in fact, change the world." – Male student "One thing that I thought was most effective about this course was the amount of information we learned about in our own backyard, and what is being done to either make it more safe or livable." – Male student The rigor of the courses is predicated on the cross-disciplinary expertise invested in the creation and review of the course modules by the project team. STEM content and skills were the learning objectives for the modules. "I liked this class because I learned a lot about Google Earth, SketchUp, and other hands-on software. This class challenged the way we see the world in a physical and scientific way. I got to learn and see things visually." – Female student "I was impressed by learning about how Battery Park was created. Also, I learned how to check the area where I live (at I loved this class! It was very helpful and interesting!" – Female student Student reflections from the pilot and first administrations of the courses indicated that a key highlight was the opportunity to relate environmental topics to the Brooklyn area, "their own backyard," and apply skills "hands-on" through testing and modeling in group- and project-based learning experiences. "Being able to visit the Dumbo [neighborhood in Brooklyn] and test the water, soil temperature, and oxygen, gave the class a different view on an environmental issue, and showed me that we have environmental issues everywhere." – Male student "The highlight of my experience in this class was forging bonds with friends [through group work], learning about my local environment–how we get our water and the process of checking the water we have in New York." – Male student 2. Faculty Development: Provide faculty with the conceptual tools and pedagogical approaches enabling them to relate their disciplines to other STEM disciplines using case studies derived from the local environment. The partnership with Columbia University Earth Institute, fostered through this grant project, provided six professional development workshops for City Tech faculty members (~72 total), primarily those connected with this project. The workshops covered a range of topics, each situated in utilizing the local environment for application of learning and illustration of concepts. Integration of technology, specifically real-world environmental testing and visualization tools, into the instructional approaches of faculty emerged as a central focus of professional development. 3. Institutionalization: Design, pilot, and institutionalize an interdisciplinary STEM course to increase awareness of career possibilities and community needs related to the environment. The two interdisciplinary courses created through this grant were successfully approved. Moreover, the courses received the approval of CUNY general education accrediting body ("CUNY Pathways recognition") identifying the courses as satisfying "Physical and Biological Sciences" and "Scientific World" criteria, validating such general education value throughout CUNY system. The NYCCT administration considers this project, its products and outcomes, to be of high importance for strategic planning, particularly in regard to its potential to intersect with community organizations, such as municipal planning offices and park districts, small local firms, and citizen science groups, to not only use, extend, and enhance the course modules, but also to create an internship program. Moreover, the administration has been influenced through this project to consider creating and testing an interdisciplinary environmental science certificate program. The major challenge is the institutional barriers that restrict the economic viability of collaboratively taught courses and complicate the housing of such a program. The project’s stakeholder review panel, made up of internal NYCCT faculty and administrators, recommended considering the viability of creating a "center" for interdisciplinary environmental studies. This recommendation further illustrates the institutional commitment to sustaining the vision of this project. 4. Partnership: Promote exchange between NYCCT STEM faculty and Earth Institute researchers. One of the key project products, the Mobile Labs–its concept and the technology elements–emerged from this strategic partnership. In summary, this exploratory project produced (a) tangible products, i.e., course modules that can be sustained over time through implementation and honing based on instructor and student feedback, and (b) enhanced interest, knowledge and skills related to the importance of the environment, particularly locally, by the NYCCT students and administrators.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE)
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Myles G. Boylan
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CUNY New York City College of Technology
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