A Treasure of a Trip
Alternative Spring Break Journey Took STEM Learning to the Tropics
Treasure Beach, on Jamaica's south coast, is an idyllic destination that attracts savvy visitors with its tranquil beaches, off-the-beaten-path vibe, and commitment to sustainability. Many college students would consider it the perfect place for a fun and relaxing spring break. Thanks to NYU Tandon’s deeply ingrained ethos of placing technology in service to society, our students saw not an opportunity to relax but a chance to put their STEM knowledge to good use.
In March a multidisciplinary team from the Vertically Integrated Project (VIP)initiative — which allows students to engage in an intensive, long-term research project over the span of their academic career — traveled to the quiet Jamaican fishing village to volunteer at a high school there. Most of the participants were involved in the Vertical Farming project, which aims to develop food-growing methods that are energy efficient, create minimal waste, and can be scaled to meet the produce demands of urban areas. They were accompanied by a premedical student, who also volunteered in local healthcare facilities.
Overseen by faculty member of the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department Alexandra Seidenstein and Associate Director of Academic Affairs Sara-Lee Ramsawak, the team’s “alternative spring break” was an unforgettable educational experience for all involved. Read on to learn more in the participants’ own words.
On our first day volunteering at Newell High School during an unanticipated teacher strike, many of us were assigned to supervise classrooms filled with students and just a single whiteboard. As we walked the halls to our 7th-grade science classroom, I peered into dusty classrooms and noticed the lack of materials — books, rulers, pens, pencils, whiteboard markers [and other basics] that would be commonplace in any American high school ... This experience gave me a newfound appreciation of the privilege that I’ve grown up with, and has also deepened my desire to help those who have not been as fortunate as I have been.”
“Our Vertical Farming group as a whole really challenged and expanded the idea of our product and its role in the world. Getting to bring something we’ve worked on for a year and sharing it with the students and teachers at Newell High School was so rewarding. The project sparked interest of all kinds among the students. Some asked to learn about coding, others about vertical farming, and some kids were just inspired to learn. A few girls came up with a rap about New York (and us), another kid just wanted to know what physics was. These seemingly unrelated questions were sparked by a curiosity in who we are and what we brought. Even though our vertical farm might not be what Jamaican agriculture needs right now, the passion and hunger to learn is what Newell High School needed. It showed us that our vertical farm can be used as an education tool in communities all around the world.”
“Once our dream trip to Jamaica finally became a reality, I was nervous. Not only was I not feeling ready, but everything seemed to be going wrong, with the TSA removing parts of our prototype from our suitcases and the high school teachers of Jamaica deciding to start a massive strike all over the country the exact day we were supposed to go visit the school. However, my team was with me, and I immediately knew ‘everything was gonna be all right,’ because each member had a passion for our project and believed in its significance. The high school students were awed by our technology, even without fully understanding it, and eager to learn about it. It was amazing to spark their interest and have them ask us questions. All human beings have a desire for knowledge, no matter what circumstances we are born in, and we should always aim to encourage that.”
“When Professor Seidenstein first told me that we would be going to Jamaica and setting up a vertical farming unit at Newell High School in August of last year, I was definitely excited about going. But I also wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. At that point, we were still working on building our first vertical farming prototype and had barely even figured out what we were trying to achieve as a group. We had a couple of preliminary meetings, but it started to become clear that going to Jamaica with a concrete plan for every single day wasn’t really going to possible. [But after we arrived] to see students excited about learning, about possibility, that was so rewarding. I realized at that moment that it wasn’t about planning [the trip], it wasn’t about showing them a vertical farm, it was about demonstrating to them the prospects of education and technology.”
“After going on this trip, I can only encourage more students, especially engineering students, to seek out and take opportunities to go abroad and experience different places, people, and culture. Where you go, is entirely up to you, but as an engineering student who has struggled to find time to go abroad because of my restrictive schedule, I find it sad to hear of brilliant engineers who are capable of creating extraordinary technologies that sometimes end up not being used for good or that affect people in unintended ways because they do not understand the needs, beliefs, and history of people different from themselves. I firmly believe that we need to make more opportunities for engineering students to become not only effective problem-solvers, but effective problem-finders as well. And, I think that can be done by opening them up more to the world and understanding the real concerns of real people.”
“I was most touched by two students, Stephan and Antonio, with whom I interacted. Stephan was skeptical of vertical farming and its ability to imitate nature without imparting something harmful into the food, a concern I myself once had. He had so many questions, he was worried he was asking too much, but I told him you can never ask too many questions. I showed Antonio a program called sketchup on my laptop and let him play around with it; he ended up making something resembling a spaceship and showed a level of genuine excitement about technology that I hadn’t seen in a long time ... The trip renewed my desire to educate people and help develop vertical farming technologies, which have the ability to not only reduce the footprint of farming but its impact on the environment — impacts that are being felt more and more in countries like Jamaica.”
Associate Director of Academic Affairs Sara-Lee Ramsawak
“Sending global engineers into the world is something that I personally aspire to do and something that would benefit our students in their futures. Students with international experiences are more attractive to both industry and academic fields, especially in the world of STEM where there is plenty of international cooperation. Because of the restrictive, difficult curricula that many STEM students are faced with, having international opportunities outside of academia available to students can help them to expand their horizons in different ways. While this program is the first alternative spring break and volunteer trip coordinated by the Office of Undergraduate Academics along with a Tandon academic department via the Vertically Integrated Projects Program, we are hopeful that it will inspire the creation and implementation of more service trips that fit into our mission and provide a great experience for our students.”
Faculty Member Alexandra Seidenstein
“My hope for this trip was that the NYU pre-med and engineering students would be able to provide attention, information, and care to the Treasure Beach community. I have deep familiarity with this area because I’ve been visiting Treasure Beach since I was a kid in the single digits. The group of students Sara and I brought down were mostly part of the vertical farm research team I mentor called ‘FarmBytes.’ The students created lessons around their vertical farm development, along with a small prototype they designed, built, and donated to Newell high school. Since returning to New York, many of the students have told me (as I expected might happen) that the kids at Newell High School and the people of St. Elizabeth taught them more than they thought possible. Because of this, they are already wanting to get more involved with volunteering. Truly, this was what I had hoped for from the start.”
“My presumption of Jamaica before this trip was based on pop culture media; consequently I expected beautiful white sand beaches, sunny days, dreadlocks, and Bob Marley paraphernalia. After spending a week immersed in the culture of Jamaica I found that describes only a small fraction of what I experienced this spring break. The Jamaica I experienced was full of unconditional welcoming, passionate community members, and inspired students ... I helped give two excited boys a crash course on basic Python syntax, instructing them about downloading software to their computer and suggesting online resources to learn more. Once we finished, one turned to me, smiled, and asked, “What about physics?” I replied, “What kind of physics?” and he answered, “Like … just physics.” I got to work teaching them about the correlation of time, velocity, and acceleration. This is a moment I will never forget. They were ecstatic to learn knowledge that I had presumed useless or purely academic ... I have spent 17 years in the American education system and in one week I learned all about the value of education from two boys at a high school on Treasure Beach.”
Assistant Director of Vertically Integrated Projects Jack Bringardner
"The goal of the international VIP consortium and the NYU VIP program is to bring experiential learning to the classroom. Alexandra Seidenstein's Vertical Farming team is the realization of service, innovation, and education changing society."