Summer Sustainability Experience Students Design Solutions for NYC’s Sustainability Challenges

The Eco Center at 412 was abuzz with excitement as 32 Grades 5-7 students put the finishing touches on a 3D model of a Brooklyn city block they designed to meet the United Nations Millennium Sustainable Development Goals (MSDGs) and New York City’s sustainability plan, OneNYC 2050. This activity was part of the inaugural Spence City Sustainability Experience, a summer camp designed and run by Eco Center Director Brandon Kraft to empower students to engineer solutions for New York City’s most pressing sustainability challenges. This summer program is offered free of charge for students and made possible by Spence's Starr Foundation and Design and Engineering Grants.

“The idea was to give students the opportunity to see how scientists and engineers help other people,” said Kraft, who explained that the Eco Center is “focused on building a more equitable and resilient world.” Kraft added that the program’s curriculum is place-based, focusing on specific communities of New York City that are encountering challenges as a result of climate change. This year students explored the neighborhood around the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a waterfront community that is particularly susceptible to the effects of global warming and rising sea levels and is also grappling with the impact of gentrification. 

The weeklong camp launched with a discussion about the many considerations that go into designing and building a city block, including the infrastructure needed to support the people living and working there, as well as the roles engineers, architects and urban planners play in the process, from ideation to construction. In mixed age groups, students developed schematics for essential buildings in a community – a school, apartment building, grocery store, hospital, firehouse, and police department. Using physical sciences and mathematics skills, they considered factors such as how to run electricity and plumbing in their structures, build circuits in physical spaces, determine a waste management plan and ensure their blueprints were to scale. 

“Each group had a different challenge related to their specific building,” Kraft explained. “For example, in a hospital, you have a light switch on the wall … but you don’t want that switch hooking up to the life support machine, so how do you build circuitry that supports that?”

In designing the camp’s curriculum, Kraft worked to bridge students’ learning in Middle School with topics in sustainability and environmental studies. “We take existing content and skills and create a place to apply them to new settings that give real-world import to what they’re learning in the classroom,” Kraft emphasized. “We decided to focus on agriculture and waste, energy and water. Those topics were chosen because they align with multiple MSDGs and build on existing fifth grade programming through the STARR Grant.”

The camp serves a dual purpose in that members of Eco Fellows – an Upper School environmental leadership program designed and run by Kraft – have the opportunity to deepen their engagement with sustainability issues by serving as teaching associates for the camp. Many Spence Eco Fellows have an interest in teaching, Kraft explained, noting that they must complete a demo lesson as part of their application to the program. Eco Fellows are also trained in key pedagogical skills as well as major topics in environmental studies, environmental governance and urban ecology. 

“Eco Fellows add to the debates the teachers are bringing up,” said Kraft, noting they are “the eyes and ears and guidance for each stage of the building process.” Middle School campers also “grow quite a bit by interacting with high schoolers who have spent their high school career focusing on engineering, sustainability and the sciences,” said Kraft. 

The camp was a resounding success, with students coming away with an in-depth understanding of what it takes to plan and create resilient structures, facilities and communities in a changing world. “Students came back to us at the end of the program and said, ‘I had no idea how much went into building a building,’” Kraft said.