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Kids Learn How To Build A Sustainable Brooklyn In School

Sixth grade students at the Brooklyn Urban Garden Charter School last spring with a greenhouse they constructed using plastic bottles. (Photo courtesy: BUGS)

A new generation is helping to make Brooklyn more environmentally sustainable.

We’re featuring just a few of the interesting projects created recently by students at the Brooklyn Urban Garden Charter School (BUGS), whose school year just started on Monday. The Windsor Terrace middle school occupies space in the former Bishop Ford High School building on 19th Street, just off the Prospect Expressway.

BUGS opened in the fall of 2013, and graduated its first 8th grade class last June. It attracts students from across the boroughs, with a special focus on District 15.

Sixth, seventh and eighth graders at BUGS spend each fall learning about the fundamentals of urban sustainability.

In the spring, students work on answering what the school calls “guiding questions,” using critical thinking along with “creativity, understanding and advocacy,” to tackle real world environmental problems like solid waste management, water scarcity, and loss of native species and green spaces.

BUGS website states that its interdisciplinary curriculum follows the academic scope and sequence of the city’s public schools, and is aligned with Common Core standards.

Sixth graders focus on the school’s garden as they learn how to problem solve; while seventh graders look at New York City’s extensive water system, including Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal; and eighth graders examine globalization and urbanization.

Check out some of the sixth grade garden-focused projects below.

The entire sixth grade at BUGS helped to build a greenhouse as part of their Sustainability 101 class last spring. Led by teacher Monika Wuhrer and 6th grade sustainability coordinator Mandy Rice, the students started by identifying a problem: “We have many single use plastic bottles at BUGS during state exams — so the kids can drink water easily.”

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Completed greenhouse.

The sixth graders began reading about “upcycling” — the reuse of materials in a way that increases their functionality. Students learned why it’s better to “turn trash into treasure,” rather than throwing out or even recycling items like bottles, Wuhrer said.

The sixth graders watched videos and read articles about one possible use for plastic bottles — a greenhouse. Then, they researched and designed their own greenhouses, which they presented to their classes.

Wuhrer said she looked through all the designs the students presented, and tried to incorporate aspects of the student models into the final design of the plastic bottle greenhouse.

BUGS sixth graders enjoying their greenhouse.

Students worked in small groups during the build. Some cut bottles and strung them on bamboo poles, while others built a frame and then affixed the bottles and bamboo to the frame. Finally, they attached separate panels to create one complete structure.

Green Wall

Green Wall.

The Green Wall is the student’s competition-winning project; it won in a class competition against the six garden-focused projects created by BUGS students last spring. Led by instructor Ms. Callie, the students wanted to build something that protected plants in the school’s rear yard — or “yard-en” — from flying balls during recess.

Ms. Callie and her students came up with the sustainable wall, with a simple drip irrigation system that allows water from the top bottles to feed the bottles below. The wall “upcycles” or re-uses plastic bottles to accomplish three goals: nurture plants, build a protective barrier and beautify the yard.

Cement Block Planters

Cement block planters.

Students were confronted with the task of re-using scores of abandoned cement blocks in the BUGS’ rear yard. The blocks were unsightly and steadily being damaged.

The solution? The sixth graders decided to plant succulents — fleshy plants that retain water — along with other drought-tolerant plants, inside the blocks.

The new use of the blocks helped to beautify the backyard, and transform it into more of a green space.

Outdoor Classroom

Outdoor classroom via milk crates.

Students had another opportunity to learn about “upcycling” when they used milk crates and wood to build outdoor seating and additional classroom space.

More seating will be constructed this fall using reclaimed materials, Mandy Rice told us.

BUGS students worked on other projects this spring as they problem solved in the garden. They helped to maintain a native plants garden, along with “woolly pockets,” hanging wall planters that they filled with soil and herb plants.

Wooly pockets can be used to create a wall of greenery, very useful in an urban environment. The pockets have a felt “tongue” or back panel which “wicks water down directly to the roots,” conserving water and promoting plant health.


Both the native plants garden and the wooly pockets can be found in front of the school on 19th Street.

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Example of wooly pockets in action– these pockets are in Washington Square Park. (Photo courtesy

The sixth-graders had a busy year! They also produced a garden-themed mural to further beautify the BUGS yard.

In our next post, we’ll look at what the BUGS seventh graders have been working on as they delve into some of the issues affecting New York City’s local waterways.

(All photos from the Brooklyn Urban Garden Charter School.)

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