November 16, 2011 by Robin Plaskoff Horton
A 1400-square foot smart and sustainable hydroponic urban farm sits on the third floor rooftop of a New York City public school. It’s home to The Greenhouse Project, a strategic partnership between a small group of parents and educators and New York Sun Works, a NYC-based non-profit organization that builds innovative science labs in urban schools. The farm is a laboratory, a dynamic classroom in which city kids learn where their food comes from, how much energy is used to produce it, and the relationships between diet and health, food and the environment.
Inspired by New York Sun Works’s Science Barge, a floating laboratory and urban farm, The Sun Works Center for Environmental Studies–the flagship Greenhouse Project Science Laboratory–opened in the fall of 2010 at the Manhattan School for Children (P.S. 333.) It’s a novel way, not of learning, but rather of experiencing science. In this living lab, which is an integrated part of the school’s curriculum, students learn to appreciate the importance of sustainable development and the connections between cultural and biological diversity, while at the same time they become empowered to make educated choices about their own impact on the environment. It’s a whole learning approach–students make connections between what they are learning in science and social studies and how all of it is reflected in the world in which they live.
Local Learning About Global Issues
To date, about 1200 students students from Kindergarten through eighth grade have participated in the project, a hands-on classroom and science lab that brings to the hyper-local level issues of global concern: climate change, the efficient use of water and energy, how to build greener cities, and how to grow a secure and healthy food supply.
Video: Urban Gardens Media.
“It’s so great seeing the kids working in teams,” said NYSW Director, Laurie Schoeman. “They are learning together–learning critical thinking skills that they can take home with them, apply to their own lives. They see and make connections that they can take from one part of their lives to the next.”
The lab, available every day of the school year, allows 40 children at a time to experience science through interactive technologies such as hydroponic vegetable farming, aquaponics, raised soil beds, solar panels, rainwater catchment system, weather station, wind energy, worm composting, and a kitchen corner.
In lieu of chemicals, the farm makes use of beneficial bugs for pest control. Using smart technologies like the interactive displays in their weather station, students monitor and record variables in humidity, temperature, solar radiation, and carbon dioxide inside and outside the greenhouse.
Cultivating Sustainability Educators
The growing continues beyond the lab, as New York Sun Works has identified teacher support and training as a crucial component of the Greenhouse Project initiative. At The Sun Works Center, educators from around the city, the region, and the world receive training in the environmental science curriculum, Water, Energy, and Waste: Integrating Themes of Sustainability into Your Classroom, a teaching program that brings together a team of scientists, technicians, urban farmers and environmental advocates for a 36-hour workshop focusing on a range of current topics in urban sustainability. The training allows elementary school teachers to bring STEM + sustainability education back to their own students and classrooms.
Participating teachers are provided with all necessary materials, including small hydroponic kits and composting bins for classroom use. Guest speakers have included Vertical Farm Project innovator and ecologist Dickson Despommier, Ph.D., New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) energy educator Jocelyn Cohen, Ph.D, and Friends of the High Line Gardener and Master Composter, Maeve Turner.
NYSW recognizes that not every school can afford to build a large-scale greenhouse facility. But, as Schoeman explained, they can still impact schools by providing teachers with a do-it-yourself hydroponic kit and instruction that they can then bring back to the classroom and integrate into their own curriculums. The program’s objective is simple: to inspire students to ask questions, investigate systems, make predictions, and design solutions while meeting and exceeding NYC Science Standards.
Growing the Program
The second phase of the Greenhouse Project was unveiled with the opening an 800-square foot greenhouse at Brooklyn’s first green school, P.S. 89. NYSW anticipates that by 2014, seven other New York City schools will feature similar greenhouses developed through the initiative. Planned are three in Manhattan: P.S. 208 in central Harlem, a Magnet School focused on Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability, P.S. 199 and I.S. 44 on the Upper West Side; two in Brooklyn: Brooklyn School for Inquiry in Bensonhurst and P.S. 165 in Brownsville; one in Queens: Renaissance Charter School; and The Harbor School, a rigorous college-preparatory school on Governor’s Island that focuses on environmental stewardship through maritime training skills.
The Greenhouse Project of East New York is a temporary “pop-up” urban farm concept (above) designed in support of the neighborhood’s “Verde Initiative“ to create a greener, healthier, more sustainable place to live for its high-poverty community. It is proposed to be built on a presently city-owned vacant lot once slated for a housing development.
The plan is for NYSW to prepare and transition the school staffs to eventually run the programs on their own–sustainable programs–at the end of the day, that”s what it is all about.
“The Greenhouse Project is dedicated to improving environmental science in urban schools. Through our state of the art hydroponic greenhouse science labs, we aim to provide tomorrow’s decision-makers with an elevated set of skills, a broader perspective, and a lasting sense of commitment to lead the global community in an environmentally efficient way.”