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Hydroponic Kits, A Class, A Community: An Interview with Wendy Rodriguez

From growing beans and calendula, lettuce and celery, and even germinating blueberries and pumpkins, it’s been a busy year for Wendy Rodriguez’s students at PS 176 The Ovington School, in Brooklyn. Although the majority of her students – she teaches kindergarten through 2nd grade – were learning from home throughout the school year, the lack of a formal classroom didn’t stop these farmer-scientists from exploring, investigating, and farming from window sills, tables, and desks at home.

She spoke with us in May to share some of the highlights and lessons learned over this past school year.

The kids loved working with the kits!
The kids have become so passionate about what they’ve grown. They’ve had some amazing successes — plants with really thick stems, beautiful calendula flowers, beans. Sometimes kids don’t want to eat what they’ve grown because they’re so proud of the plants and become attached to them.

They’ve gotten creative with repurposing household materials . . .
Students learned to work with what they had at home — water bottles, milk cartons, even a toilet paper roll cut in half – for transplanting the plants when they got too big for the hydroponic wick system.

. . . And with reusing food scraps to grow food without buying seeds!
Kids went beyond what they had in the kits to grow vegetables and fruit from food scraps at home. Some grew celery, lettuce, and green onion plants from the leftover plant bases, and a few kids even germinated blueberry plants, avocados, mango and pomelo plants! One student, with a very green thumb, germinated oranges, pumpkins, and green peppers, all from leftovers!

Not everything worked but the failures are important too . . .
Sometimes plants didn’t grow, but those failures are important too, because it’s important for kids to understand that it’s okay when something doesn’t work out and to know that growing plants isn’t easy.

. . . And unplanned lessons are just as important as the planned ones!
We learned together that it was more difficult to grow the plants in the winter months, when there was less natural light and drafts from the windows. We’re having more luck growing again this spring, with better sunlight and warmer weather.

The kits inspired experiments and investigations . . . .
One 2nd grader tested the effect of temperature on plant growth by placing one plant in a heat tube and the second in front of an open window. Another student compared the effect of using fresh versus fish waste water on bean plant growth (fish waste wins — the waste provides important nutrients!).

. . . And helped create a remote community
Parents shared growing tips with Wendy, kids shared growing tips with one another, helping everybody learn and connect even when they couldn’t be together in person.

In all, shared Wendy, “it’s been a challenging year but we made it work. Kids are resilient — they adapt more easily than adults.”

Thank you, Wendy, and to all our partner teachers for the tremendous work you do, this year and every year!

School Harvests Across New York

School closures and social distancing requirements made it hard for students to visit their hydroponic labs this year.  But in many of our partner schools, the hydroponic systems were still going and the delicious harvests continued to be put to good use. Thanks to generous support from our funding partners, hundreds of pounds of healthy, fresh greens were shared with students, their families, school staff, as well as local food pantries and community organizations, to support food security during a difficult time. Shared one community organization, “The greens were just FABULOUS and oh so fresh. Our clients were so happy to receive some healthy options during this time, especially our seniors.” Read on for more on this initiative.  

At PS 20 Anna Silver Elementary on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, regular harvests of basil, lettuce and snap peas, along with the occasional beautiful (and edible!) marigolds and dahlias, were shared with the school’s students and their families throughout the school year.  PS 20, along with four other Manhattan schools, were able to keep their hydroponic systems going and distribute their harvests thanks to generous funding from Borough President Gale Brewer’s Manhattan Community Award Program Grant, which supported growing food for the school community during this year of Covid-19 challenges.  

In Astoria, Queens, PS 171’s hydroponics teacher harvested nearly 20 lbs of greens, including kale, Swiss chard, arugula, basil and parsley, in the month of April alone!  The Vine Crop System was also overflowing with approximately 40 lbs of tomatoes and cucumbers and the delicious, fresh greens were shared with students, their families, and the school community.  Funding to run the lab at PS 171, along with 7 other Queens schools, came from the Queens Delegation of the NY City Council, with particular support from former City Councilmember Costa Constantinides.

The New York Power Authority (NYPA)’s support has been instrumental throughout the pandemic for hydroponic lab operations and the distribution of Home Hydroponic Kits at 15 schools in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens.

Additionally, a grant from the US Department of Agriculture has helped to keep hydroponic labs running in schools in the East New York and Canarsie sections of Brooklyn. At High School for Medical Professions, one large harvest of greens including collards, kale and chard, was donated to the Children of the Light food pantry and other harvests were enjoyed by the school community.

Thank you to our partner schools, to our amazing Greenhouse Support Team for keeping the hydroponics systems running and the crops growing, and especially to Gale Brewer, Costa Costantinides, The New York City Council, NYPA, and the USDA for helping to make this important work possible in such a challenging year.

Students Share Science Research and Message of Resilience in NY Sun Works’ 10th Annual Discovering Sustainability Science Conference

On May 19th, students from public schools around NYC came together virtually to share their research and celebrate their scientific accomplishments at NY Sun Works’ 10th Annual Discovering Sustainability Science Youth Conference.

The Conference, typically hosted at Symphony Space to accommodate the large audience, was presented in an online format again this year due to continuing restrictions imposed by COVID-19. The virtual setting didn’t tamp down the enthusiasm or energy of the students, all of whom showed impressive perseverance in shifting gears and continuing their months-long research projects from home under the remote guidance of their teachers.

“I was able to have them watch it in class today and they were really excited to see their work featured and a ton of kids want to volunteer in the greenhouse next year,” said Ginny Sullivan, a teacher at Edward R. Murrow High School. “So watching the youth conference really motivated them.”

The 37 student speakers, who ranged from 3rd to 12th grade, presented on an array of science and sustainability topics, studying how plants grow and what impacts plant growth and development over time. Students have been running investigations to study the effects of vitamin C, temperature, location, added nutrient levels, light, and caffeine on different types of plants ranging from beans to basil. Other students shared the many ways that they are taking action and making a positive impact on the environment from their schools and homes – from exploring innovative ways to combat rising carbon dioxide levels to designing their own hydroponic greenhouses for New York City.

The students were joined remotely by members of our Greenhouse Support Team and Education Director Hannah Jaris, with special guests Daniella Piper, Regional Manager in New York Power Authority’s Western Region and Chief Transformation Officer; and Danielle Corbin, teacher and author of the children’s book I Am A Mini Entrepreneur.

In what’s been a very difficult time for all, the voices of these students and guest speakers sent an inspiring message of resilience and determination.  As Daniella Piper summarized in her moving talk:

“You and only you are the author of your life. Every significant thing that will happen to you, good and bad, are individual chapters of the book that you are writing. Taken all together they become your unique story. Like every good book, your life will have unexpected twists and turns, but if you remain true to your values, you might be surprised at the ending. So keep your eye on the prize, continue to be a student for the rest of your life, seek knowledge and ask yourselves, how can I make my family, friends, or even a stranger’s life, just a little bit better everyday?”

You can view the entire conference here.

Food Ed Coalition Spotlight: An interview with Megan Nordgrén

An interview with Megan Nordgrén, our Director of Program Development, was recently featured in the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education and Policy Food Ed Coalition Spotlight:

What are your interests and passions? How did they lead you to work at NY Sun Works?
I’ve always been passionate about the environment, which led me to work for various environmental non-profits and part of the U.N. Oceans programs. It wasn’t until my children started public school in NYC that I noticed science, sustainability, and nutrition education were lacking within the public school system. NY Sun Works allows students to learn science through urban farming. It has been a pleasure to see the positive impact NY Sun Works has had on these students for the past 3.5 years I have worked there.

What impact does NY Sun Works have on food and nutrition education practice and policy?
Our hydroponic science labs have a wonderful by-product of nutritious and delicious vegetables! Students can grow vegetables right in the classroom, which gives them the ability to learn about healthy foods and share the information they learn with their families. Through NY Sun Works, students are given the tools needed to make choices that will better their health and the environment.

Describe a “day in the life” at NY Sun Works.
With a staff of 20 people, it’s pretty much always “all hands-on deck!” During the week, most of our staff make weekly visits to more than our 130 partner schools to work with teachers to ensure the hydroponic labs run smoothly. Our education team works on developing new curricula and training our partner teachers. Other program members work behind the scenes to help build partnerships with new schools, raise funds, and work on various administrative tasks.

What does a typical lesson by NY Sun Works look like?
The NY Sun Works curriculum follows the philosophy of learning through practice and experimentation. We utilize the hydroponic systems installed in our partner schools’ classrooms to teach science, environmental education, and sustainability.

How have your services changed since COVID?
NY Sun Works had to adapt to ensure our partner schools were still being supported during school closures. So our program made three significant changes to allow for children to continue to learn remotely. These three changes included: curriculum adaptation, home hydroponic kits, and feeding school communities through urban farming.

Curriculum Adaptation: Our program transitioned lessons to the online learning platform for remote learning, using Google Slides for students to have easy access in their Google Classroom. These slides allow children to engage in topics they would otherwise be learning in-person by way of NY Sun Works Reports, videos, and the new Let’s Investigate video series. Let’s Investigate videos are led by our staff and demonstrate how to set up investigations that explore topics like what plants need to grow.

Home Hydroponic Kits: Our program created a new Home Hydroponic Kit for students, with teacher guidance, to grow, study, and run investigations with their plants from home. The kits engage students with topics they would be learning in their Greenhouse Classrooms if it weren’t for the pandemic. These kits allow students to gain observational and data collection skills.

Urban Farming to Feed School Communities: Currently, most NY Sun Works labs in NYC schools are growing much-needed food for communities. Since many students cannot visit the Greenhouse Classrooms right now, the labs are being run as urban farms, and fresh vegetables are being grown to feed school communities. Students’ families and staff members can take nutritious vegetables home, and some schools are providing food to community organizations.

How can people support your work right now?
We always welcome donations, no matter how small, to support our school partnerships. Please visit https://nysunworks.org/get-involved/donate/ for more information. Thank you in advance! You can also follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. And please sign up for our monthly newsletter!

What is your favorite local fruit or vegetable?
I have so many: asparagus, strawberries, spinach, and pumpkin!

Welcoming New Partners

After a long pandemic pause, NY Sun Works is excited to welcome new school partners!  In the last few months, our team has installed hydroponic science labs in 10 new schools in 4 NYC boroughs and in New Jersey. The group includes four new high school partners:  Boys and Girls High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Academy for Conservation and the Environment in Canarsie, Port Richmond High School on Staten Island and Weehawken High School in New Jersey.  We also welcome one independent K-9th grade school, Allen Stevenson in Manhattan.  New middle school partners comprise John Ericsson Middle School in Greenpoint and Mott Hall II in Manhattan.  PS 85 Great Expectations in the Bronx, PS 158 Warwick in East New York and PS 9 Sarah Smith Garnet School in Prospect Heights are new elementary school partners.  

The new builds are continuing at a pace of roughly 1 new hydroponic lab per week, with plans to complete 10 more labs before the end of the school year in June.  This is keeping our Greenhouse Support Team very busy!  Some of these soon-to-be partners include PS 18 Multilingual Neighborhood School in Greenpoint, IS 223 The Montauk in Borough Park, Satellite Academy High School in Manhattan, PS 380 John Wayne Elementary in Williamsburg, PS 75 Mayda Cortiella in Bushwick, George Westinghouse Career And Technical Education High School in Downtown Brooklyn, and PS 190 Sheffield in East New York.  The construction pace will ramp up during the summer months when most schools are closed and we hope to be able to have another 20 labs ready to open for the start of school.  

We welcome ALL new partner teachers to join us for a Professional Learning workshop on June 3rd to introduce them to the lab, the curriculum, and the NY Sun Works team.  Invitations will be sent soon!

Open Schools, Open Labs

What a year it’s been!  It’s wonderful to start to see more students and teachers back in schools, and many hydroponic labs in action.  We feel such gratitude for the herculean efforts our partner schools have undertaken to keep their students engaged in learning.  And we at NY Sun Works are proud that we have been able to support our partners in hands-on science learning, even from a distance, and provide nourishing food for communities. Despite the pandemic, nearly 60 NY Sun Works labs are currently operating, many with support from generous funders who have helped shore up struggling school budgets.  A tremendous thank you to the New York Power Authority, Queens Delegation of the NY City Council, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Council Member Costa Constantinides, Council Member Reynoso, US Department of Agriculture and the DOE Office of Sustainability.

For those schools with labs that have had to remain closed this year, we look forward to working with you to plan for a Fall 2021 reopening.  What better way to welcome students back than with beautiful green plants and the promise of exciting hands-on science learning.  Our team will be reaching out soon to schedule a visit to assess your lab’s supplies and to ensure that your hydroponic equipment is in good working order for the next school year.  

For our remote students – and also some students in school, but unable to visit their labs – we produced and delivered 12,500 Home Hydroponic Kits.  Seventy-nine schools received kits and the accompanying curriculum, including 15 new schools that do not yet have hydroponic labs.  We look forward to continuing these new partnerships!

We are thrilled that we have been able to begin installation of new hydroponic labs and welcome new partners!  The School Construction Authority has released FY20 Capital Funds, allowing construction of new hydroponic labs – halted in March 2020 – to get underway again.  Projects are well underway now and plans are in place to complete most of them prior to the start of the 2021-22 school year.  And please stay tuned for FY21 Reso A lab information, which will be coming soon!   Our NY Sun Works network of schools is growing in exciting ways.

NY Sun Works Provides 12,000 NYC Students With Home Hydroponic STEM Kits, Supporting STEM Learning, Social-Emotional Well-Being During COVID

NY Sun Works has provided 12,000 Home Hydroponic STEM Kits to NYC public schools this school year, supporting hands-on STEM education for K-12th grade students during remote and blended learning. The demand for kits far exceeded the initial expectation of 2,000 orders, showing the strong need for hands-on learning resources during the pandemic.  

Shared one elementary school student from Queens, “When I get a hydroponics kit and become a farmer scientist I will be feeling excited because it’s been so long since I’ve done science. I think I will learn a lot about plants and what they need to grow.”

The kits were designed to engage students on science and sustainability concepts that they would otherwise learn at school.  With teacher guidance and the kit-specific science lessons developed by NY Sun Works, students have been able to grow, study, and run investigations from home with edible plants as well as practice their observation, data collection, and other critical STEM skills. 

Recognizing the anxiety COVID has triggered for many students – in particular for students in communities hit hardest by the pandemic – the hydroponic kit lessons also incorporate activities to foster social-emotional well-being.  In addition to science lessons, students are tasked with observing and tending to their plants to help create a stabilizing daily routine and they regularly share their progress and challenges with classmates and teachers as a means to encourage conversation, collaboration, and curiosity.  One teacher shared that the kits and curriculum have been a lifesaver, bringing joy and something to look forward to each day for students that have been struggling with remote learning and being stuck at home. 

The kits are part of our larger efforts to address education needs emerging under COVID.  Since the pandemic began, the organization has implemented several new initiatives to support teachers and students, including creating more than 3 months of weekly ready-to-use K-8th grade remote STEM learning modules for teachers in our partner public schools; developing over 50 Let’s Investigate science videos with experiments that students can conduct at home; and converting several of our Greenhouse Classrooms to indoor farms to provide produce for the school community and local food pantries. 

NY Sun Works provided 4,000 of the kits at no cost to public schools that need financial support due to COVID-related budget cuts. Says Manuela Zamora, Executive Director of NY Sun Works, “NY Sun Works continues to innovate in the field of education while preparing youth for the challenges of the 21st century. Now more than ever, we are committed to providing quality science education regardless of student zip code or school budget.”

Take a Virtual Field Trip with NY Sun Works

The Education Team at NY Sun Works is excited to announce that we will be offering a new Virtual Field Trip package this Spring focusing on composting and its connections to STEM! The package will be available in early April and will include a set of lessons (with accompanying Google slide presentations) and virtual field trips to a rooftop Greenhouse Classroom and worm bin, and an outdoor composting facility. If you are interested in connecting with our Curriculum Specialists about the new virtual field package please indicate your interest here.

The Virtual Field Trips will allow students to visit and get a hands-on view when they are unable to have a hands-on experience. Each section of the Virtual Field Trip is accompanied by tables and Google slides to reinforce content. Students utilize these accompanying digital tools to record, model and draw conclusions from what they are seeing while demonstrating understanding for teacher evaluation. 

K-5: Students are introduced to compost through the concept of a closed food cycle and the efficient recycling of nutrients using the nutrient cycle. Watching this process first hand, students will observe the decomposers and the process of decomposition through cellular respiration. Then, applying this knowledge to their own Greenhouse Classrooms, students learn and understand how these processes are used and maintained in our worm bins. To wrap up this unit, students will revisit the nutrient cycle, identifying decomposers and modeling their role in the ecosystem. 

6-8: Students begin identifying decomposers and examining their trophic role in the ecosystem, particularly the role of cellular respiration in the decomposition process. Then, taking a closer look at the essential nutrients used by plants to support ecosystems, students examine how nutrient quality affects plant communities. Using this as a framework, students will see how worms, found in their Greenhouse Classrooms, are efficient decomposers. This will be reinforced by a close study of their anatomy through dissection. The students reflect on the role of these systems and organisms in their own lives as they grapple with the idea of landfills and the effects of their overuse. 

9-12: Students are introduced to composting through examining the closed food cycle and the use of urban composting as a sustainable alternative in current waste management practices. Then, focusing on composting in a trophic system, students gather observable data on cellular respiration and the importance of aerobic decomposition for the ecosystem. Students then see the benefits of harnessing anaerobic decomposition and compare its effects on the carbon cycle to aerobic systems. Students will also hypothesize on the effects of our modern waste management practices on the carbon cycle, through modeling its movement (or lack thereof) through our spheres.

NY Sun Works Celebrates Young Girls in STEM

Thursday, February 11th, was the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a day to honor women’s significant achievements in science and place a much-needed focus on girls entering Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) careers.

This special day served as an excellent opportunity to celebrate the incredible students in our partner schools! We decided to honor them in a social media content series and reached out to our teachers to nominate a young girl (or girls) who is pursuing her passions for science and STEM, who goes above and beyond expectations in her science studies, who has exceptional leadership qualities, or is otherwise inspiring!

The response was truly amazing. Teachers started emailing the evening we announced the campaign and continued to do so over the next few days leading up to February 11th, when NY Sun Works planned to unveil the young nominees.

We received a total of 17 nominations from 12 different schools ranging from grades 2-12. There were so many that we couldn’t fit them into one post!

“Laylani is a great helper to her classmates when they have some difficulties understanding certain concepts. I’ve always noticed her willingness to help. It puts a smile on my face when I overhear her explaining a concept or the directions of how to complete an assignment. Her tone is always pleasant so her peers can receive her support. And her peers are always appreciative of her help.” – Mrs. Self, PS/IS 180M Hugo Newman

“Rihanna is a 6th grade student from University Prep Middle School. Her curiosity is always an asset during class time! Rihanna makes observations on how science is relevant to her own life, and is able to deconstruct the abstract concepts we learn and make them more concrete. I admire Rihanna for her optimistic disposition, curiosity, and constant desire to apply scientific knowledge to her world.” – Ms. Taylor, University Prep Middle School

Please read about all the nominees and their accomplishments below. We can’t wait to see how they change the world!

Hydroponic Labs Running as Urban Farms to Feed Communities

Even with this year of school closures and uncertainty, more than half of NY Sun Works labs in NYC schools are currently operating to grow much-needed food for communities. With many students unable to visit the Greenhouse Classrooms due to social distancing requirements, the labs are being run as urban farms growing fresh vegetables to feed school communities. Students’ families and staff members are taking nutritious greens home, and some schools are providing food to community organizations serving neighbors in need.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer generously awarded 6 schools Manhattan Community Award Program grants specifically for urban farming to address food insecurity during the Covid-19 pandemic. One of these schools, PS 48 in Washington Heights, is sending their lab’s frequent vegetable harvests home with students and their families as part of biweekly produce distribution from City Harvest and Brighter Bites. They are planning to do a virtual cooking event in the spring that will utilize some of the produce produced in the lab. At PS 333 Manhattan School For Children, the Greenhouse has been providing vegetables to 2 neighboring community organizations. And in Brooklyn, IS 239 Mark Twain has had such abundant harvests that they delivered a large crop of lettuce, kale, cucumbers and basil to a local food pantry.

NY Sun Works is honored to be able to work with our partner schools to provide much-needed fresh vegetables during this time of food insecurity for so many in New York City.