NYU Tandon welcomes the World Science Academy to its “farm team”

grad student holding greens grown in the lab

Ph.D. candidate Omar Gowayed displays greens grown in Tandon's MakerSpace.

When Caroline Gelb, an associate director of education for the World Science Festival, thinks about topics and activities that will engage New York City’s high school students, she tries to focus on cutting-edge fields that will present good job opportunities in the future. This year she hit upon the idea of urban agriculture, and NYU Tandon was a natural stop on the itinerary.

In early February dozens of teens participating in the Festival’s program World Science Academy — arrived at Tandon’s MakerSpace to tour the Urban Food Lab and hear from an array of experts.

The farm got its start here in 2016, when a group of students conceived of a fully enclosed tabletop environment that could house 20 plants, which thrived thanks to a “food computer” that monitored climate, energy use, and growth. The group later developed a commercial refrigerator- sized prototype, which they maintained in the MakerSpace and which could nurture four times as many plants. Soon, they incorporated such innovations as an aquaponics system that housed fish whose waste could be used as fertilizer, and an algae reactor, which allowed otherwise wasted light to be harnessed to grow a highly nutritious secondary crop.

That student project ultimately morphed into a commercial enterprise, We Are the New Farmers, which now grows, packages, and sells fresh Spirulina, while the Urban Food Lab, a spin-off initiative, became part of Tandon’s Vertically Integrated Projects program, which allows students to collaborate on a multidisciplinary project for up to three years.

Given that the Academy aims to introduce teens to leading scientists and allow them to visit top university facilities, the Urban Farm Lab fit the bill perfectly, and the students enthusiastically listened to presentations by Ph.D. candidate Omar Gowayed and Introduction to Urban Agriculture by NYU Urban Farm Lab instructor Melissa Metrick, who explained that the field involved a wide range of disciplines, from computer scientists to chemical engineers. Also on hand were representatives of Gotham Greens and Bowery Farming, two local commercial enterprises, who affirmed that with the global population growing and food demand expected to increase 70% by 2050, urban farming was indisputably the wave of the future.

student at display table behind large vat of green liquid

Later, attendees browsed the MakerSpace, where information booths had been set by such organizations as the Mycology Club at NYU, Oko Farms (which specializes in aquaculture and hydroponics), Square Roots (a seed-to sales urban farm and training program), New Harvest (cellular agriculture investors), We Are the New Farmers, and Sustainable Snacks (a Bronx- based purveyor).

Proof that the visiting high-schoolers were excited about the possibilities of studying urban agriculture was evident: the crowd surrounding Tandon Director of Undergraduate Enrollment Management Cindy Lewis, who had helped organize the event, was as large as that waiting for snack samples.