Growing Trend: Sustainable Science in New York City Schools

by Megan Nordgrén


Photo by Ari Burling, courtesy of NY Sun Works

While the federal government currently eschews all mention of climate change, more and more New York City schools are embracing sustainability education. One such opportunity for a solid STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program is turning students into urban farmers, as they learn the mandated science standards.


The Greenhouse Project is the brainchild of New York Sun Works, a small non-profit that builds innovative hydroponics laboratories or state-of-the-art greenhouses in schools. Students learn about sustainable urban farming through project-based learning that emphasizes climate change education. This hands-on approach extends knowledge by connecting concepts such as water resource management, efficient land use, climate change, conservation, contamination, pollution, waste management, and sustainable development.


NY Sun Works’ inaugural project was The Science Barge, a sustainable urban farm prototype and education center on the Hudson River.  It was the only fully functioning demonstration of renewable energy supporting sustainable food production in New York City. A second project, the Sun Works Center (PS333), was completed in 2010.  It provides K-8th grade students with hands-on exposure to food production paired with rigorous science education. As the first year-round rooftop farm to exist at any New York public school, the Sun Works Center is considered an educational and environmental landmark by the NYC Department of Education and School Construction Authority.


Photo by Ari Burling, courtesy of NY Sun Works

Building Hydroponics Labs

Following the opening of the Sun Works Center, many schools became interested in creating their own hydroponics labs, prompting NY Sun Works to create the Greenhouse Project. School administrators identify at least one educator to teach the program, then NY Sun Works helps to design an individualized classroom lab or greenhouse, incorporating different types of systems to maximize learning potential.   Examples include hydroponic systems that will grow multiple heads of leafy greens; vine crop systems that allow the growth of vine plants such as tomatoes, peas and squash; aeroponic tower gardens that can grow herbs, edible flowers and other small plants; aquaponics where plants grow from filtered tilapia waste; as well as compost towers and the use of beneficial insects to control pests.  Funding for the projects comes from donations and private grants, the principal’s budget, and capital grants from elected officials.  All of these systems are integrated into the curriculum to teach the science of sustainability.


Teaching Sustainable Urban Farming

After NY Sun Works has installed the systems, they conduct extensive training for school staff on how to maintain them, and how to teach the curriculum.  The organization has collaborated with teachers to create an extensive kindergarten through 12th grade curriculum that addresses real world problems, allowing students to learn complex scientific concepts while doing hands-on projects with the hydroponics labs.  For example, young students problem-solve when pest issues arise, doing research to determine chemical-free solutions that can include the introduction of beneficial insects.  The elementary school curriculum includes 80 lessons per grade, which cover all required science subjects.  The middle and high school curriculum involves in-depth modules that challenge students to solve a relevant and complex problem, and to communicate that solution to the public.


Photo by Ari Burling, courtesy of NY Sun Works

Connecting With the Community – In and Out of the School

Once the labs are in use, NY Sun Works helps provide regular maintenance of the systems, but also works to improve the overall sustainability of the school by creating a Zero Waste program.  Another key program component is helping schools develop a plan for using all of the nutritious food they’re producing, with an emphasis on connecting to the community at large. This can include creating a farmer’s market selling to the school or local community, using the harvest in the cafeteria through the Garden to Cafe program, holding cooking classes for students and parents, donating food to a local soup kitchen, or working with a local restaurant.


Education Accolades

A 2016 study of the NY Sun Works curriculum conducted by Kate Gardner Burt, PhD, RD, concluded that students who receive the curriculum are more likely to score higher on the 4th grade science achievement test than students who do not receive it. The study also indicates that the NY Sun Works program not only meets core science requirements but also integrates climate change and sustainability education in a way that improves student’s understanding of science as a whole.  In recognition of the success of this curriculum, combined with the classroom lab installations, NY Sun Works received the grand prize, and a grant award, in the national UL Innovative Education Awards.


Continuing to Grow

Many public officials have recognized the value of the NY Sun Works program and have actively sought funding for hydroponics labs in their districts.  Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez allocated

Photo by Ari Burling, courtesy of NY Sun Works

funds from a federal magnet grant to build new hydroponic labs that further STEM education.  Other schools in Brooklyn came online under the second phase of Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams’ “Growing Brooklyn’s Future”, a $2 million initiative to create hydroponic classrooms in a dozen schools, including Brownsville, Bushwick and East New York. During this second phase, NY Sun Works was able to create a complete K-12 pipeline in several communities, allowing interested students to continue the innovative urban studies they began in kindergarten all the way through their high school years.


In line with her commitment to ensure that all Manhattan schools have access to urban gardening or farming programs, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer provided funding to add hydroponic labs in schools across Manhattan, in partnership with NY Sun Works.  And as part of his ongoing initiative to improve science learning spaces in schools, Council member Costa Constantinides allocated capital and programming funding to support new hydroponic labs in Queens, as he believes science and sustainability are pivotal to preparing children for the future.


NY Sun Works now has labs in 67 schools, with a goal of reaching 100 schools by 2020.  Through state-of-the-art hydroponic greenhouse science labs, NY Sun Works aims 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.


Leave a Reply