Sara Camnasio

Thinking outside the (engineering) box is a common theme amongst the innovators who’ve graduated from NYU Tandon. Not only is creative thinking encouraged here, but our students already come to campus with a curiosity about how science and engineering can impact our world.

Consider Sara Camnasio, who was studying physics at CUNY Hunter when she began to realize a different path from the typical doctoral track. Possessing a long-standing passion for making science accessible, Camnasio always promoted more widespread and equitable science education.

From giving a talk at the 2014 TEDxCUNY event on making science more exciting for young students, to working as an astrophysics research assistant at the American Museum of Natural History, Camnasio was already seeking ways to make science fun and engaging to everyone.

“I always felt the need to make science more accessible, across all meanings of accessibility, such as increasing gender and racial diversity,” Camnasio says, but she felt the need to reach people and audiences on a greater scale.

After learning about the Integrated Digital Media (IDM) program at NYU Tandon, she applied and quickly discovered her calling in human-centered design. “That very first semester at IDM, I took a mandatory class called “Design Thinking” and that’s where I first heard of human-centered design and service design as a terminology,” she says. “I got a strong sense for what it means to practice this type of design because all of the classes at IDM are project-based.”

Camnasio immediately delved into multiple projects and university groups in her first semester, becoming a service designer with Design for America’s (DFA) NYU chapter and a graduate fellow with the IDEAS Project. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the IDEAS project focused on developing an after-school curriculum that translated engineering coursework into a program for middle school children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

“I worked with Professor Luke DuBois as a fellow for two years, so throughout my IDM program I was working in science education and teaching engineering design to middle school students,” Camnasio explains. “From that first semester joining DFA and the IDEAS Project, it really helped me get a feel for whether this was something I wanted to pursue.”

Designing with Heart

It is Camnasio’s dedication to scientific accessibility throughout her life that caught the eye of National Geographic. Not only did she earn the 2015 National Geographic Young Explorers Grant (now called the Early Career Grant) as an undergraduate, Camnasio is currently a three-time recipient of the grant that recognizes young entrepreneurs with projects that are “bold, innovative, and potentially transformative and have a primary focus in conservation, education, research, storytelling, or technology,” according to their website.

While working on her master’s degree at IDM, Camnasio met up with fellow National Geographic Young Explorers, and started brainstorming about potential collaborations and projects. After bouncing around ideas, the team decided upon a project that combined conservation and filmmaking, and earned Camnasio her second National Geographic grant.

What started as a simple idea became “Grandpa’s Reef,” an underwater 360° film that aims to encourage kids and young students in the Philippines about protecting coral reefs and the ocean. The film will debut in 2019 in the Philippines, and is part of an educational campaign that will teach lessons and activities in schools across the country about the environmental impact of coral reef depletion.

“I’ve been writing the curriculum and the educational aspects of the project, while also focusing on the film’s distribution, trying to answer questions like, ‘what kind of headset should we use,’” Camnasio says. She’s also working on a design challenge to accompany the film.

“From the skills I developed as an IDEAS Project fellow, and my ongoing interest in making science more accessible to everybody, it translated really well with this National Geographic project. All of my work and experience is really coming together,” she says. “What’s important to me, especially with “Grandpa’s Reef,” is that we’re working with kids, who are the next generation of decision makers. Trying to inspire them to care about the ocean is going to hopefully have a lot of impact in the future.”

For this young decision-maker and innovator, the future is bright. The recent graduate is currently working as a Service Design Intern at Designit, where her designs include physical and digital experiences for clients. As she prepares for the 2019 debut of “Grandpa’s Reef,” Camnasio is already on her way to impacting her community and the world, one step at a time.