In the years since Cornell was granted the land on which the gleaming, modern Cornell Tech campus now stands, there has been much debate – and more than a little handwringing – among residents about whether the new institution would choose to embrace the rest of the Island community or would instead live in its own bubble at the southern end of the Island.
But for at least one family on the Island, these boundaries between old and new, them and us, campus and residents, has not only become increasingly blurred, it has all but disappeared.
Tapan and Niti Parikh moved to Roosevelt Island from Berkeley, California, with their two sons a year ago. The Octagon residents both work on the Cornell Tech campus. Their sons attend the Island elementary school, PS/IS 217, where Niti also spent the past year volunteering. Tapan even joined the Roosevelt Island Residents’ Association as a member of the Common Council.
"It’s very exciting to be part of something new,” says Tapan.“ You have a lot of opportunity to shape how it develops. I was also really excited about Roosevelt Island. I thought it had a lot of potential as far as the connection between the university and the community. It’s such a small place. There’s an opportunity to create a new kind of university-community relationship here – a partnership.”
Niti Parikh outside the Bridge building at Cornell Tech, where she runs the MakerLAB.
Connecting with Organizations
For Tapan, interest in the Roosevelt Island community is more than just a matter of personal curiosity, it’s also a part of his class curriculum.
As an associate professor at Cornell Tech, Tapan teaches a class on community-based design projects. For the class, students will be partnering with small organizations around the Island.
"Our goal is to see if we can solve some of the immediate technology needs of these organizations,” says Tapan. Because many of the groups are small and are run on a volunteer basis, he says they typically don’t have a lot of products and services that are designed for them.
Before moving to the Island, Tapan taught at the University of California at Berkeley, where his work focused on developing technologies in the context of international development and emerging markets, including developing mobile phone applications for small farmers in India.
"We really try to have technology meet people where they are, instead of trying to think about something very far out. In the case of small farmers, we built a mobile app that didn’t require a smartphone or data access and which also worked on voice messaging so they could just use their spoken literacy.”
He and his students are still in the early stages of working with Island groups, but he says some potential collaborators include the Senior Center, which would like to have better tracking of its services; Island internist Dr. Jack Resnick, who is interested in remote monitoring of homebound patients; and RIOC, which is interested in better tracking of the Island’s transportation services.
“In a place like Berkeley, they already have a lot of preconceived notions about what the university is there for, what relationship it’s going to have with the community. There’s this long history of town-and-gown tension. Here, it’s an opportunity to start from scratch. The enthusiasm of all these organizations to work with us was just off the charts.”
The big challenge, he says, is figuring out how to maintain the connection with Island organizations once students have graduated and moved on.
“That is something we’ve been talking about. I don’t know what the answer is yet, but at least it’s a step one: starting these relationships, increasing the connectivity, getting the experience of working together on a personal and local scale,” he says. “The second goal is to meet those expectations in some way, and in a way that has continuity.”
Between Two Schools
No matter which department Cornell Tech students are in, each of them will eventually spend time in the MakerLAB on the second floor of the Bridge building. The bright, open space is filled with 3-D printers, a laser cutter, soldering station, and the numerous other tools that graduate students will use to build prototypes and other physical products to support their research.
As creative lead of the MakerLAB, Niti works with students to not only explain how to use the lab’s tools, but also to advise them on their designs. “When they are stuck in terms of physical objects and tangible design, I help them out.” Niti says many of the students come well versed in the technical aspects of their field of research, but have little experience in actually producing something tangible.
After years of working in architecture, Niti left in 2009 to start her own design company focused on turning recycled materials into upscale home accessories, decorations, and gifts. She became deeply involved in the “Maker” movement in California.
“A lot of these machines weren’t available to academics or artists ten years ago,” she says. “I got into the wave of making and maker’s studios. The [San Francisco] Bay Area was a great spot for that. New York is basically catching up.”
Since joining Cornell Tech, she has worked to build the school’s MakerLAB from scratch. “I’m a hub for a lot of interdisciplinary problem-solving. I interact with everyone on campus. I get the opportunity to interact with a lot of talented people.”
The purpose of the lab is to let students test the ideas they were developing and create something tangible they can go to investors with. “If students are making a project and they need a circuit board, before they would have had to make a drawing, send it out, wait a few weeks to get that printed, and come back. Here they can just do it.”
The MarkerLAB offers 3-D printers capable of printing physical objects, like this representation of the Cornell Tech logo.
Last year, Niti also brought her design skills to the Island’s public school. Building off a program she had developed in Berkeley, Niti set up a “Maker Station” during recess once a week and guided interested students through design projects using recycled material. The goal, she says, was to have them make something physical. “I always came with a problem in mind for them to solve: How do we make a cardboard ball that rolls? So we start experimenting with that. It includes a lot of imagination and problem solving.”
Although she says she has found New York City schools quite different from those in California, with more structure and rules to sort through, the kids are the same.
“Just from them, I wouldn’t know if I were in Berkeley or New York,” she laughs. “Kindergartners are the best; they are so enthusiastic. Fourth graders would just pass by and barely look at it. Fifth graders won’t even come near the table unless there are flames coming out if it. So that was the same experience.”
Both Niti and Tapan say they see a lot of Cornell students interested in making connections on the Island.
“The students are very intrigued by the Island,” says Tapan. “There’s a mystery about the Island. The first time you come here, you’re like ‘What is this place? What is going on here?’ Where else do you find a place like this? Nowhere else.”
“And it’s not just the students,” adds Tapan. “The University wants to connect with the community too. I see myself as facilitating that through direct engagement of students with organizations on the Island.”
Growing up in Brooklyn and Long Island, Tapan says he had passed over the Island many times but had never actually set foot on it until recently. "I thought this was Randall’s Island for a long time.”
During an interview with Cornell Tech, he stayed on the Island at a room he’d booked on Airbnb. “I looked out the window and saw kids walking to school by themselves; I saw kids playing pickup softball in the sandlot. And I thought ‘This place is interesting.’”
So far, the move has been a success. “Our kids never want to leave the Island,” says Niti. “So this was a good choice for us to be on Roosevelt Island. As soon as we came in, my kids had friends from soccer and the building and they all walk together and go to soccer together. It was the best thing that could have happened to them after leaving all of their friends in California and everything they knew.”
Also, says Niti, “you can’t beat the commute!”