Merging Tech with Sustainability: Students Create Study Away Program in Shanghai

Sustainable Urban Environments Students Research Walkability

Students and Professor Mariela Alfonzo and Alex Shoer

Students in the Sustainable Urban Environments program were taught by Professor Mariela Alfonzo (bottom row, far right) and gained insight from Shanghai solar energy professional Alex Shoer (bottom row, far left).

In celebration of Earth Day, we take a moment to highlight our students who are working at the intersection of technology, sustainability, and urban environments. 

When implementing sustainability in urban spaces like New York City, small changes can have a major impact. This is something that students in the Sustainable Urban Environments (SUE) program within the NYU Tandon Department of Technology, Culture and Society (TCS) know quite well. Exploring the intricate relationship between environmental issues and cities, SUE students are always seeking solutions to problems by experimenting with their technical expertise to make social and environmental change.

With this ethos in mind, a group of SUE majors aimed to expand their studies of sustainability and urban spaces within other major global cities. This past year, they created their own real-world, hands-on research program that took them from the classrooms at NYU Tandon to the streets of Shanghai, China.

At a recent panel discussion, SUE students Kylie McDowell, Tamara Fou, Sagari Datta, William Lin, Noelle Piontek, Luke Polihrom, Allie Wertheimer, and Eric Zhuang shared how an idea turned into a unique, life-changing experience. Last summer they consulted with Technology, Culture and Society faculty and administration, including Department Chair Jonathan Soffer, Professor Rich Wener, Associate Dean of Academic Administration and Professor Kristen Day, Associate Director of Academic Affairs Sara-Lee Ramsawak and Senior Academic Administrator Krysta Battersby on how best to launch this program — the first global study away program of its kind at NYU Tandon.

Shanghai NYU SUE
The student researchers collected data on walkability and bike share programs in Shanghai.

With full support and guidance from the TCS Department, the students wrote their first grant proposal and received generous funding from the NYU Office of Sustainability’s Green Grants Program to travel to Shanghai. The year-long program included coursework, travel to and data collection in Shanghai, and a capstone project that analyzes the students’ research findings.

In preparation for their trip to Shanghai, the students teamed up with Professor Mariela Alfonzo and Day during fall 2017, both of whom guided the students as they analyzed major environmental issues within Shanghai and China, as well as the city’s cutting-edge environmental projects and already-implemented strategies.

Once in Shanghai, the students immediately got to work measuring the walkability and bicycle sharing programs within the city’s many neighborhoods. The students collected data using the Fulcrum application and compared their findings to the State of Place Index, studying the correlation between walkability and built environments. Alfonzo was on hand to guide the students, and organized meetings with urban planning and design professionals in Shanghai.

“I never thought of walkability and sustainability being any way similar, but they are very intricately connected. The neighborhoods we looked at in Shanghai that had higher walkability rates also had higher rates of connectivity via public transportation to other neighborhoods,” McDowell explained. “Increasing walkability and sustainability, which is great for a city’s health and safety, can be done by providing alternative modes of transportation like bike share and public transportation.”

McDowell and her fellow researchers explored the connections between sustainability and human behavior — a theme that has appeared as they analyze their data for their capstone projects. “In our conclusions, we’re trying to create recommendations for neighborhoods with low walkability. We found throughout our projects that neighborhoods that increase walkability would also increase the sustainability of neighborhood,” she said.

At the panel, Fou explained that she and her fellow students hope their research “has been a catalyst in bridging not only our program and department to the NYU Office of Sustainability, but also becoming a bridge between NYU Tandon and NYU’s global initiatives.”

Soffer agreed, noting that the SUE Shanghai research program’s success “has made our major and our sustainability efforts more visible, on campus and globally, and it has paved the way for other programs of its kind.” NYU Tandon is now expanding its J-Term study away programs, including one in January 2019 that will take students to Buenos Aires, Argentina in a course titled “Argentina and the Scientific Imagination.”

“This project was a great example of students’ taking the lead in their own learning,” Day remarked. “The students themselves generated the idea and applied for the funding to support their study away. Working together, our faculty, staff and students created this wonderful educational opportunity, which is now a great model for learning about cities and sustainability in a global context.”

Applications and information about the 2019 SUE J-Term courses in Shanghai and Buenos Aires will be available soon through the Department of Technology, Culture and Society. For more information, contact


Camila Ryder
Graduate School of Arts and Science
Master of Arts in English Literature, Class of 2018