Winning Student Project Connects Tech with Nature

December 18, 2017

Many of us spend years trying to make a lasting impact on our community, through volunteer work, activism, and other service. The graduate students in Tapan Parikh’s Remaking the City course at Cornell Tech were given a semester. 


In August, Parikh, an associate professor in information sciences, tasked his class with creating a project that could have a significant impact on Roosevelt Island within three to five years, and could bring together the Island and Cornell Tech communities. He told his class, “Do something awesome, make an impression, do something you’re excited about.” 


On Monday, nine groups from the class presented their final design projects to a panel of four judges. At stake: a thousand dollars of seed money to help bring that project to life. 


Thinking Local


Parikh moved to the Island with his family a year before Cornell Tech’s Roosevelt Island campus opened. “I got to know the Island a little bit and saw how excited people were for Cornell Tech,” he says. “I wanted to meet that excitement.”


Although he’s had a lot of experience at creating technologies to support the needs of developing communities around the world, Parikh says the course was his first experience working at the local level in this way. “At a high level, I’ve always done international projects, and worked at a distance where you can’t see the impact of your work. If it goes wrong, there’s no accountability. For better or for worse, I thought it would be nice to do something more local. On the positive side, it would be nice to see the impact, and if it doesn’t go right, people can get ahold of you.”

Tapan Parikh


His course had two components: a service project and a design project. As part of the service project, groups of students were partnered with Island organizations – including the Roosevelt Operating Corporation (RIOC), the Carter Burden Senior Center, and the Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance – to address an issue the organization was having, whether updating websites, mapping, or streamlining email systems. 


The second part, the design project, required students to think further ahead. “We read stuff related to urban planning and affordable housing to inform the design process,” says Parikh. They also had guest speakers such as RIOC President Susan Rosenthal and Carl Weisbrod, whose 40-year career in service of the City of New York includes chair of the City Planning Commission, co-chair of De Blasio’s transition committee, and president of the Economic Development Corporation under Mayor Dinkins.


Parikh and his students were testing an idea that, by engaging organizations through service projects, the students would get to know the people, places, and existing services, and ultimately create better design projects. “The groups were a way of building relationships and to help the students understand the Island by meeting people where they are,” he says. “It gave [the students] a deeper lens into the Island.”


The idea appears to have worked. Parikh says that the groups who worked most closely with their partner organizations, and engaged most deeply, ended up having stronger, more relevant final presentations.




 At the final presentation on Monday, a group of four judges – Cornell Tech’s senior director for K-12 education, Diane Levitt, alumna Aamer Saifuddin Hassanally, and RIOC Board members Margie Smith and Howard Polivy – voted unanimously to award the grand prize to Ran Sun, Shanshan Zhang, and Arpit Sheth for Flourish, an app that would map the Island’s green spaces and suggest ways to explore it. 


Sheth explained to the audience, “You get your phone out when you land on the Island; it will show you from wherever you’re standing. Let’s say you’re going to FDR Four Freedoms Park. Flourish will show you a tour you can take on the way to the green space. You will see Cornell Tech, the Smallpox Hospital, the cherry trees, as well as everything else the Island has to offer, on your way – for example, local businesses and public art installations.” 


Sheth says the group spent a lot of time with Roosevelt Island Garden Club (RIGC) members Anthony Longo and Julia Ferguson, curating a list of green spaces around the Island and characterizing them. “From playgrounds to gardens, we guarantee to you, there is a green space for everyone,” he says.


iDig2Learn’s Christina Delfico, who collaborated with the group, praised the project’s potential to encourage more people to engage with their environment. “Divided into areas like gardens, parks, and playgrounds, one can click on a “Show Me Where” button and get a walking path to that destination. And their idea gets better and better, with opportunity for people to add their photos of favorite trees or flowering plants throughout the year,” she says.


“One of my favorite moments, [during the semester] was when Arpit said, after they had interviewed a garden member, that he noticed the new plantings on the walkway to the F train, something he hadn’t noticed before," Delfico says. "Many New Yorkers experience ‘green blindness’ where they do not notice the plants around them or the benefits they give, but this partnership is awakening new ways to look at our surroundings and connect with our community.”


Love at First Sight


Of Sun, Zhang, Sheth, and their partner organization, the RIGC, Parikh said, “They hit it off right away; it was love at first sight.” 


At a meeting in October at the Roosevelt Island Garden Club, RIGC members Ferguson and Longo explained to Sheth and Sun that the organization was looking for new ways to reach the community. 


“The Island is changing, and we need to be a part of that change,” Longo told the students. 


“Our project grew organizationally from their vision, and our interest,” explained Sheth in October. “Roosevelt Island is a really tight-knit community and all of a sudden you have these Cornell Tech students. Part of the mission is to bridge those relationships. We’re not coming in here as these engineers and researchers; it’s a collaborative approach.” Parikh’s approach reflects his personal philosophy, which he describes as “needs forward, not tech forward.” 


Although she initially expressed reservations about taking on the project with Cornell Tech, Ferguson now says she thinks the process was the best part. “Our work together and our conversations and walks and bold ideas and fun ideas and constant focus for positive changes was quite fun. The process is the win from this service project/design project.”


What’s Next


There were many takeaways from the experience. For example, Parikh says that next time he teaches the course, he’d like more diversity. “We’re still getting a small cross-section [of the community]. We get the more active, more engaged population, not everyone that lives here.” He says that fresh ideas often require an outsider’s perspective. “It requires someone a little outside the community, not mired in the everyday politics, to think independently of the historical and social stuff here.” 


Parikh hopes that ultimately these projects will become fewer student initiatives, and more community initiatives. “When I saw the first iteration [of the students’ design projects], I was so impressed, I wanted more people to see these,” he says. “So many of the projects are feasible, but they depend on community involvement.” 


Judge and RIOC Board member Smith agrees. “I look forward to a long and rewarding town/gown relationship,” she says. “This program was a major step in that direction. I applaud everyone involved in it and I’ll do everything I can as a board member and longtime resident to continue this effort.” Smith suggested the group present to the Roosevelt Island Residents Association. 


Tied for second place was Let’s Eat RI, an initiative that would partner students, residents, and retailers to solve the problem of Islanders going off Island to eat; and the Intergenerational Moth, which relies on deep conversations and interactions between Cornell Tech students and Island seniors to produce storytelling events and a podcast. Both groups won $500 in seed money. Parikh plans to continue mentoring all of the groups that placed in Monday’s competition. “That’s why I love my job,” he says. “Young people bring that, they see the world in a way we can’t anymore. You need that energy to remember what’s possible.”

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