Cool Course: New York Underground

June 14, 2024

Katie Schneider Paolantonio is a cave biologist by training—someone who’s always been curious about the ecology of dark, hidden places, and the creatures who live there. Shortly after she joined the faculty of NYU’s biology department, someone asked whether city life had left her missing field work. “Actually,” Schneider Paolantonio replied, “In New York City, you already have this fantastic underground network of systems—gas mains, subways, sewer lines, and water pipes.”That realization became the genesis of her undergrad course “New York Underground,” an experiential learning class that focuses on the three types of underground infrastructure that New Yorkers depend on each day: energy, transportation, and water. “I think students are often quite surprised to realize that it’s relatively recent that these systems were put into place,” says Schneider Paolantonio, a clinical professor of biology. For real-world lessons on transportation, students descend into New York City subway stations to take readings, and have worked with the MTA to study environmental factors such as noise pollution and air quality.

Katie Schneider Paolantonio is a cave biologist by training—someone who’s always been curious about the ecology of dark, hidden places, and the creatures who live there. 

Shortly after she joined the faculty of NYU’s biology department, someone asked whether city life had left her missing field work. Would she ever return to caves? 

“Actually,” Schneider Paolantonio replied, “In New York City, you already have this fantastic underground network of systems—gas mains, subways, sewer lines, and water pipes.”

That realization became the genesis of her undergrad course “New York Underground,” an experiential learning class that focuses on the three types of underground infrastructure that New Yorkers depend on each day: energy, transportation, and water. 

“I think students are often quite surprised to realize that it’s relatively recent that these systems were put into place,” says Schneider Paolantonio, a clinical professor of biology. “New York City got drinking water in 1842, and subways in 1904.”   

Through hands-on data collection, visits to the city’s constructed cave equivalents, and guest lectures from industry leaders, students learn how these systems came to be and what threats they face today, from aging infrastructure and urban population growth to climate change.

When studying energy and conservation, students team up and use a handheld infrared camera to visualize the draftiness of buildings—for instance, how much energy is lost from a building using a regular door versus a revolving door. (They can even earn extra credit by writing a letter to the NYU Office of Sustainability with their findings.)

For real-world lessons on transportation, students descend into New York City subway stations to take readings, and have worked with the MTA to study environmental factors such as noise pollution and air quality. 

The source of this news is from New York University

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