New York Experienced: An Urban Case Study (Online)

Open to students entering grades 9 through 12 or freshman year of college in the fall
I - June 29–July 17, 2020
Days & Time:
Monday–Friday, 9:10 –11:00 a.m. and 1:10–3:00 p.m.
Vincent Drybala with Karen Drohan and Katherine Kartheiser

“I learned a lot about the history of the city, its people and infrastructure, and why it became the world capital we know today.” — From a program course evaluation

Course Description

This immersive course designed for students interested in New York City’s urban environment, culture, literature, history, and public policy comprises six interconnected modules:

New York City: A History of People, Politics, and Place
What is New York City’s relationship to the American Dream? How does the City grow from its origins as a peripheral colonial outpost into a world capital? This overview explores New York's complicated historical origins, dynamic economy, tumultuous politics, multiethnic and multiracial populace, and innovative architecture as a basis for the rest of the course. We also examine how human biological and neuroscientific development play a crucial role in the development of the city. Students are exposed to methods of field study, visual analysis, and critical interpretation.

Writing the City
How is our understanding of New York – its projected image and self-image – shaped by literature about the city? How does the culture of the city exist outside of its boundaries? How has the city’s history shaped popular culture? Using short stories, poems, popular songs, journalism, and essays, students investigate the connection between the city and the manner in which it has been exported as a cultural icon.

NYC Systems and Community
The city exists as a series of overlapping systems; transportation, businesses, living areas, even cell phone towers and sewers all exist in close proximity, and often in tension with each other. It is a vibrant ecosystem: people, pets, rodents, pigeons, bacteria, and viruses competing for resources in close quarters. It has also been a place in which humans have encountered and conquered a significant number of biological challenges. Using systems thinking, students examine the community of New York as an ecosystem with a rich and ancient evolutionary past.

How do we exist in concert or tension with so many competing interests? The answer here defines our community - what we value and what we don’t. How do we evaluate what, or who, is valued in our community? How do our brains frame the way we interact with our community? This overview takes into account an evolutionary lens when diving into historical and contemporary examples of how the communities in New York have worked together or experienced tension.

Urban Place Design
What places make for an inclusive, successful, lively, and resilient city? We study various answers to this question – public/private partnerships (e.g. Bryant Park), the NYC Department of Transportation Plaza Program, public parks (e.g. Central Park), privately-owned public spaces, hospitals and business improvement districts – in order to understand the fundamental dynamics of public space in New York City. Armed with that knowledge, we select a location and design our own proposals for public spaces. We also examine how previous urban designers, such as Robert Moses, sought to overcome the challenges faced in constructing (and reconstructing) the city – and how those solutions often have ramifications for today’s NYC.

Biology of the Urban Environment
Biology has always played an important role in the construction of the city: from the role of the 1832 cholera epidemic in constructing the famed aqueduct, to the 1918 flu’s influence on sanitary conditions and working hours, to the citywide response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This unit focuses not only on the biology behind such events but also on the conditions that enabled and fomented them, as well as the city’s healthcare respon

Emerging Urban Issues
Course instructors and invited experts introduce students to key policy, financial, and legal issues confronting American urban areas today. Topics include urban sustainability, green energy and transportation, affordable housing, urban planning, and zoning. Current events illustrate the issues facing America's cities. We examine recent developments such as High Line Park, the pedestrianization of Broadway, bike lanes, the Hudson and Atlantic Yards proposals, new sports stadiums, and the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan.

In addition to engaging in dynamic class discussions about contemporary affairs, students work with invited experts from the public and private sector, devise their own policy memos, and study relevant locations in New York City, acquiring a first-hand understanding of particular approaches to urban issues. Through the consideration of race, class, technology, environment, social welfare, and public policy, students acquire a solid grounding in the historical origins of contemporary urban issues.


Vincent Drybala

Vincent Drybala is the English Department Chair at the Ethical Culture Fieldston Upper School. For the past decade, he has taught English classes for grades 9 through 12, and he has also served as the Interdisciplinary Advocate for the Upper School. He helped to create Fieldston's City Semester program, which was influenced by his work with Columbia University Summer Program's New York Experienced course. Vincent received his B.A. in English from Allegheny College and his M.F.A. in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College. 

Karen Drohan

Karen Drohan is a history teacher at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. Prior to joining the ECFS faculty in 2015, she was the Social Science department chair at The Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, California. Karen earned her BA in history from the University of Southern Maine and her MA in history at California State University, Northridge. She returned to Cal State, Northridge to work with members of the history department to develop a series of professional development workshops for middle and high school teachers. Karen has taught classes in world history, United States history, Middle Eastern history, and Nazi Germany.

Katherine Kartheiser

Katherine Kartheiser is a science department faculty member at the Ethical Culture Fieldston Upper School. After she received her B.A. in biology from Brown University, where she graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, she joined the Teach for America Corps and served as a high school secondary science educator on the South Side of Chicago. She earned her Masters in Teaching from Dominican University during her time in the Corps. Katherine currently teaches Biology, Immunology, and Human Physiology at Fieldston and focuses on weaving units on diversity, equity, and inclusion into the curriculum.

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Specific course detail such as hours and instructors are subject to change at the discretion of the University. Not all instructors listed for a course teach all sections of that course.