Beyond Organic Design’s 2017 Urban Design & Sustainability Program (UDSP) was a smashing success. Like the 2016 UDSP, the current version took place at Renaissance Charter School (TRCS) in Queens. Our students became eco-citizens through immersive, experiential learning. The UDSP is centered around sustainability education, design, science, art, and literacy.
The kids got to know each other better in Week 1 through playing some memory games. The UDSP is about working hard, learning new concepts, and plugging into one's community, but it is also about having lots of fun and respecting your peers.
For Week 2, UDSP students trekked to the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) in the Bronx, visiting their Rose Garden. It's the city's oldest rose garden and recently celebrated its 100-year anniversary.
They also visited NYBG’s Native Plant Garden, witnessing firsthand local indigenous plants and the wildlife that they attract, such as birds. The kids strolled through NYBG’s forest, learning about the interdependent roles of wildlife, native plants, and trees in a healthy ecosystem.
Back at the school, the students put crayon and marker to paper to create drawings of the plants and vegetables they'd become acquainted with. BOD is a huge fan of children's art, and the UDSP gang showed off their talent while categorizing vegetables and fruits.
Preparation to become mini-chefs began with introductions to seasonal produce and how to use cooking tools. The first culinary adventure was making frozen yogurt, followed by lactose-fermented radishes and carrots and “rainbow” smoothies. The latter is based on the wise nutritional advice to “eat the rainbow.”
Different colors support different body systems and organs, so it’s essential to consume a variety of colored fruits and vegetables. We might ask ourselves, do I want to make one part of my body healthy or all of it? Most of us would say, "All of it!"
Field trips are integral to the UDSP. In Week 3, we split up into two groups and headed to Yonkers. Our older students visited New York’s famous Science Barge, a prototype of a sustainable urban farm operated as an environmental education center. Everyone received an inspiring crash course on solar energy, growing food hydroponically, recycling rainwater, composting, and aquaponics. The barge's tomatoes were super tasty.
Meanwhile, our younger students were delighted to visit the Center for the Urban River at Beczak (CURB) and explore the Hudson River ecosystems. They put on river waders and walked into the river to do some seining and bring in treasures to observe, like freshwater crabs.
Later, at TRCS, we rehabilitated the soil in tree pits outside the school. First we did a soil test, then improved the soil with compost, covering it with a bed of hay to protect it from the drying effects of the sun. Not only does this conserve water but it reduces weeds by limiting their sun access. All the hard work paid off when we finally planted flowers in the tree pits. Local residents were impressed!
UDSP students are encouraged to develop their artistic gifts. We gave them full opportunity to express themselves in Week 3 however they wished, as long as there was some connection to what they'd learned: sustainability, ecology, and permaculture.
In addition to developing their artistic talents, the kids learned about new plants and created a Word Wall showcasing the definitions of those plants. And they were taught which plant category each belonged to.
When Trees New York dropped by in Week 3, they gave the children a one-of-a-kind puppet show. UDSP students made their own puppets using paper bags, creating characters based on trees that reflected their personality.
For Week 4, like last year, the Queens County Farm (QCF) was a big hit with the UDSP kids. Do you know QCF dates back to the 17th century? Students took a tour, went on a hayride, fed the animals, and perused the farm’s produce and crafts in the farm's charming store.
The UDSP emphasizes experiential learning, so we made time for everyone to learn new skills like hammering nails, sawing wood, and constructing birdhouses. They also sharpened their new cooking skills, making basil pesto, and then enjoying the fruits of their labor. The basil was sourced from TRCS’s rooftop garden.
During the first four weeks, students expanded their concepts of permaculture design, like optimizing space and efficiency of an environment with no waste. For Week 5, they did a mock redesign of Renaissance’s rooftop garden according to these principles. Using the online program Vegetable Planner, they executed a computer design of a fictional garden. Permaculture is about placement, so vegetables and plants were situated for maximum benefit based on the changing seasons.
There's always work to be done in the garden. Students honed their agricultural skills by doing some planting, watering, pruning, and harvesting. Kids love getting their hands dirty, learning how to grow food, and eating it!
Parents frequently tell us how their children never used to eat vegetables but after they sample locally grown food, even a school's rooftop garden, they change their tune. When children grow kale, they eat kale! The UDSP gives young people an idea of how food is sourced, where it is sourced, the environmental costs of shipping it so far, and how it tastes when it is chemical-free and travels a shorter distance.
Soon, they were off on a ferry to visit Governors Island Teaching Garden. UDSP students took a guided tour of their rainwater harvesting system. Then they were treated to a culinary class where they harvested carrots, planted seeds, and made themselves a fresh vegetable salad. The many different varieties of butterflies in NYC were explained.
Governor's Island is a fascinating place. Before leaving, the kids learned about making food with a solar cooker. And a demonstration of a special bike created enough electricity to use a blender!
Throughout the UDSP, students were encouraged to keep a journal, recording their observations about what they learned in class and on the field trips, plus a little doodling.
Models of sustainability can be found everywhere, even at home. For Week 6, Greg K.---his son Ezra is a UDSP graduate, his daughter Zoe was a student this year---invited the UDSP gang to his house, just like he did last year. Greg demonstrated his own rainwater barrel system and showed how he composts. He shared grapes and veggies from his garden and served homemade lemonade.
The UDSP is unique in that it incorporates art into STEM education, creating STEAM. For Week 6, as they did the year before, the students began drawing and painting a beautiful mural to be hung on TRCS’s rooftop garden. The finished product was spectacular!
Students also started work on their personal stories to be printed in the UDSP graduation booklet for Café Night. We thought it would be great for them to share their lives and memories growing up with the UDSP parents on Graduation Day. In preparation, the kids formed their own Café Night Committee, organizing for the evening’s festivities.
For our last and final week--the time always goes by so fast—the Jackson Heights Beautification Group (JHBG) invited us to do a service-learning project in Week 7. They led a discussion about trees and green spaces in cities, as well as their work caring for them. Everyone split up into groups and went around the neighborhood cleaning up the tree pits.
Upon their return to Renaissance, the kids finished their mural, made some ice cream, and cooked apple crisp and pizza. They also put in some time on the rooftop garden. Activities included planting seeds, weeding, observing any vegetable growth, and pruning plants.
Soon it was time for Graduation Day. With their completed mural hanging as a backdrop, students sang, and danced. They also shared revealing anecdotes about their lives at home with their families from the Cafe Night booklet they'd worked so hard on. And, as parents can attest, there was lots of good food!
In addition to reading their personal stories from the Cafe Night booklet, the kids displayed artwork collages depicting family life at home. The UDSP encourages multiple forms of expression and the UDSP crew never disappoints.
After the festivities were over, UDSP parents and students took a tour of the rooftop garden so everyone could get acquainted better. And kids got to play in the dirt.
UDSP students reject the notion of all work and no play. So do we. As an added bonus, the day after graduation, the gang visited a playground near TRCS. We didn't exactly have to talk them into going. It was a nice way to wind down after their seven-week journey.
Another year, different children, similar projects, productive learning. Beyond Organic Design is immensely proud of every UDSP graduate who took the leap into becoming global citizens. They learned about sustainability, art, building, and permaculture, as well as building upon their literacy. Great job, each and every one of you. We'll see you next year!
Special thanks goes to those who helped make the UDSP a success---The Renaissance Charter School (Rebekah Oakes, Peggy Heeney, Stacey Gauthier, plus too many others to name), the New York Department of Youth and Community Development: COMPASS Explore Program, Assemblyman Francisco Moya, The Laura B. Vogler Foundation, Inc., UDSP parents, and, especially, our students.