Inside Sun Works: Growing Up With The Greenhouse Project
The importance of green spaces– and the positive effect they can have on education– is no longer a question. Over the course of the past twenty years, Alice Waters and the Edible Schoolyard have argued for (and have triumphantly demonstrated) the advantages of incorporating nature into the classroom. Other organizations, like Harlem Grown, have proven the results can be replicated in different places and on different scales, with equal success.
But the question of how to incorporate green spaces remains– in a city like New York, space is competitive and nature is not always convenient. While Harlem Grown has found prosperity in East Harlem, they still struggle with the constant threat of development. Shortening the distance between the great outdoors and crowded classrooms can seem impossible– even in a place that otherwise seems to have everything.
The Green House Project by New York Sun Works, however, is making nature out of thin air.
Founded in 2008 by a small group of educators and parents who were inspired by the Sun Works Science Barge (stay tuned for our visit!), the Green House Project seeks to bring sustainable urban farms to schools in New York. The non-profit installs greenhouse labs on school roofs and in empty classrooms across the city; their first greenhouse was built on the roof at PS 333 in 2010 and today there are 30 labs spread across the boroughs and New Jersey. Their latest and largest rooftop greenhouse opened on February 26th in Brooklyn, and there are another 14 labs in development. With the help of the Brooklyn Borough President, all are set to be built over the summer and completed by the fall.
For New York, rooftop greenhouses are a neat solution. Unlike traditional gardens– which can be difficult to settle on a location for– Sun Works’ greenhouses take advantage of “empty” rooftop space or unused classrooms. In addition, unlike traditional outdoor spaces, the sites aren’t burdened with having to remediate the soil and don’t have to contend with the various unavoidable emissions endemic to New York or wandering pests. They provide a stable climate and, as a result, a space that can be utilized year round.
For teachers, the greenhouse offers a versatile space. Time in the greenhouse is accommodated in the curriculum, and the greenhouse provides a fertile grounds to demonstrate plant science, chemistry, and environmental science– all of which has the positive effect of making kids dedicated environmental stewards.
At the heart of The Green House Project, however, are the students: the work they do, and the responsibilities they assume for the greenhouses. Students are in charge of different experiments, selecting and sowing their seeds, positing their hypotheses, and seeing projects through to completion. Everything the greenhouses grow has a specific student behind it and success comes with hard work, attention, and care. In allowing students to assume ownership, kids not only connect to and learn the material in a meaningful way, they develop their critical thinking and confidence as well.
The work done in the greenhouses also encourages students to be proud of what they can accomplish in the space. Now in its fifth year, the New York Sun Works Annual Youth Conference takes place in June and features student presentations based on their experiences in the greenhouses. The conference is populated by middle and high school students who speak on a range of impressive topics. In the past, presentations have included solutions to capture carbon and promote plant growth, and ways of creating energy audits for large commercial spaces. While educators and experts in the field are involved in the event, the focus remains on the creativity and curiousity of the students.
Students– and their work– also remain front and center at the Sun Works fundraising events. For The Green House Project’s dinner in the fall, students train with a professional chef and catering services prior to the event, and assume all responsibilities the night of. Ingredients are sourced from the greenhouses themselves, and are supplemented by local produce from the farmers market.
The challenges that face urban green spaces– and their implementation in schools– is exactly what makes the Green House Project so exciting. The space, a hybrid of nature and modern design, is inspiring, and takes advantage of limited resources. But perhaps more importantly for kids, the greenhouses inspire curiosity by offering a space they make their own.
The Green House Project’s ultimate goal is an ambitious one: 100 labs by 2020. But considering all that they have already accomplished, and with the success and enthusiasm of their students, it seems the only direction they’re going is up.