Q+A: Thor Snilsberg of CityScience
CityScience, who relocated from Midtown to DUMBO in 2014, uses the context of the city and the guidance of STEM professionals to teach and inspire kids to participate in society. We were thrilled to honor their work in the neighborhood with a 2016 DUMBO Dozen Award this year. We sat down with CEO Thor Snilsberg to learn more.
Tell us a bit about CityScience, how it got started, and the inspiration for it.
CityScience is exactly what it sounds like. We use the city to teach Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). In addition to grounding our programs in the context of NYC, our approach is unique because we inspire kids not only to take pride in their environment but to be active participants in their community. Successful projects can be characterized as learning by doing. That is the true nature of design and scientific processes.
Our overriding goal is to get K-8 students hooked on science and use it to make positive changes in their communities, from reducing their carbon footprints by building solar powered USB chargers to caring for rain gardens.
STEM is the fastest growing sector of our economy. Simultaneously, performance and interest in these subjects are terribly low. Shortage of qualified science teachers and inequitable access to high-quality out of school STEM experiences are some major roadblocks, to name a few. CityScience provides everything a new teacher, PTA, community organization or park group would need to run a program. We provide curriculum, supplies, coaching, and connections to leading STEM professionals throughout NYC.
Our office in DUMBO is really a creative studio and resource center for educators, parents, STEM professionals, and a cadre of wonderful generous geeks who use our library and shop to develop new projects. Today, we had the drill press out building a hydroponic garden. Next week a 3D printing guru will be in to help us elevate our 3DP game. In the spring, I am sure all our gardening tools will be back in action. When three or four people come together to try something new, confidence issues go out the window and we create some really beautiful STEM activities. It's truly amazing.
What do you think is the most important CityScience ingredient— the main gear it wouldn't be able to run without?
Our Rolodex of hundreds of STEM professionals is vital. Volunteer designers, techies, engineers, professors, and so on all help us see the city through STEM lenses. They provide historical facts and new trends that are shaping NYC, introduce us to new technologies, take us on field trips, and become invaluable resources. Science is so dynamic, and surrounds us constantly. Why would we teach STEM without the input of passionate experts?
It is ridiculous that kids are indoors reading textbooks published in another state about rainforests and polar bears when Brooklyn Bridge Park’s tidal pools and our hawks’ skyscraper eyrie (nests) are habitats we pass by everyday but don’t fully understand.
Our kids ask questions about roaches, traffic lights, and cell phone apps. It is our volunteer entomologists, engineers, and programmers who help us answer these questions. The old adage is, “it takes a village to raise a child” and CityScience is building an ecosystem of expert volunteers and providing them with meaningful ways to pay their passions forward to the next generation.
If you could choose a favorite program, what would it be?
Last year, CityScience worked with the Lowline, a community group building the world’s first underground park. It was a perfect example of STEM learning transcending the classroom: kids observed dozens of experts collaborating to harvest sunlight from rooftops, focusing it into an abandoned underground trolley terminal, and diffusing it to grow gardens in the dark.
Personally, it was touching to see 3,000 kids visit the Lowline’s Lab and connect their activities to the STEM concepts behind the park. I give a lot of credit to our partners at the Lowline for including kids as “Young Designers” from the beginning.
NYC is a world leader. More Nobel Prize winners graduated from our high schools than any city in the world. We’re always trying new combinations of things, which is the spirit of STEM, too. Our tagline is “inspiring exploration.” When kids start asking their own questions you know they are engaged.
Who else do you work and collaborate with?
In our first seven years, we have collaborated with 74 different schools, afterschool programs, summer camps and parks. Many of our partners return year-after-year and on average we work with 15 to 20 clients a year. In the scheme of NYC’s 1,800 schools and almost 1,000 afterschool programs you could say we are boutique. That is fine with me because our staff is interested in innovating and serving with clients who are not satisfied with the status quo and generic off-the-shelf curricula.
We start by understanding the unique needs of our clients before designing curricula, trainings or tours. Projects range from 10 weeks to 2 or 3 years depending on their goals and aspirations.
Right now, I am proud to say our curricula is used by the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy to teach the history and engineering of the Brooklyn Bridge. Our curricula teaches sustainable design and LEED principles at the greenest skyscraper in NYC. We have fantastic math and community mapping curricula that can be used anywhere in the city. Prospect Park, salt marshes, beaches, community gardens, and woodlands are all running our programs. And to top it off, we humbly served the National Urban League for 18 months. They are doing transformative STEM at 98 affiliates nationwide.
Why did you choose DUMBO?
We moved here from midtown three years ago because we didn't really fit in there. We’re a sweater and tennis shoe wearing nonprofit. Being based in DUMBO sends a message to our employees, volunteers and clients that we value creativity. DUMBO truly is our natural habitat, surrounded by other creatives and forward-thinking companies.
What is your favorite place in DUMBO?
DUMBO is full of STEM. We like to hang out by the carousel, a classic historical STEM machine. It is actually an office joke that I have a stack of carousel tickets I push on our visitors. Of course, we love sharing the history of the Brooklyn Bridge and the future of the waterfront park. The solar panel umbrellas with USB charging ports at the Pearl Street Plaza are also a favorite or mine. And they were designed by a DUMBO company. I'm sure we'll see more of this in the future – totally brilliant!
And your favorite food/art in DUMBO?
My favorite art spot is MINUS space and my favorite place for healthy eating is the salad and juice bars at Forgers. Of course, we love the farmer's market because, you guessed it, there is STEM in how we produce, consume, and transport food. And hey, we are NYC teachers, so we consume a lot coffee! Thank you Brooklyn Roasting!
What are you looking forward to?
Demand for our programs has been outpacing our capacity and we’re refining our growth plan. More and more we are opening our doors to the public interested in using our 3D printer and other resources. I would love to see our LEGO robotics or renewable energy programs on display in a ground floor in DUMBO. We’re starting to host events like STEM birthday parties-- new extensions for the whole family that will foster unique community opportunities.
If anything I’ve said today strikes a chord with a reader, I encourage them to visit us. We have an open door policy and would love to hear what ideas you have.