Greenhouse labs spur student learning on Manhattan rooftops

March 1, 2014 at 1:30 PM EDT
At P.S. 333 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, students are studying science in their very own rooftop greenhouse -- one of 12 built as part of an initiative to put 100 greenhouse labs in New York City schools by 2020. These labs allow students to experiment with hydroponic techniques, and schools donate the extra produce to local charities.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Urban farms are responsible for a very small portion of food we eat in the U.S., but a relatively new type of farm – one that uses no soil – might make a big difference in the future. NewsHour’s Tracy Wholf reports.

TRACY WHOLF: This may look like another commercial greenhouse, but it’s actually a working science lab for students in kindergarten, up through the 8th grade. It’s one of 12 that’s been built as part of an initiative to put 100 greenhouse labs in New York City schools by 2020.


SHAKIRA, 2ND GRADE TEACHER:  All harvesters, just for the front row, right here.

TRACY WHOLF:  Putting greenhouses in secondary schools isn’t new, but using hydroponic growing systems is. A method of farming using water and nutrients instead of soil – hydroponic farming allows students to study a variety of environmental science concepts and urban sustainability.

SIDSEL ROBARDS:  One of the things that our programming really emphasizes is science education and the science behind the growing.

TRACY WHOLF:  Sidsel Robards is the director of development for New York Sun Works – a non-profit that is dedicated to building science labs in urban schools.

SIDSEL ROBARDS:  So it’s really not about urban farming for us, it’s about talking about science and because most people care about food, urban farming is a great way to do it.

TRACY WHOLF: New York Sun Works opened this 1400-square foot greenhouse lab on the roof of the school gymnasium in 2010. Because hydroponic growing systems are water-based, they are much lighter than their soil counterparts and easier to install on a roof. There are also several other benefits to hydroponic growing over traditional soil farms:

It requires less space, nutrient levels in water can be more easily controlled than soil, and water is constantly recirculated – which leads to less water usage over time, as compared to traditional soil gardens.

How much does a greenhouse like this cost?

SIDSEL ROBARDS: This one cost $850,000.


SIDSEL ROBARDS: Yeah, so that sounds like a lot, but if you compare it to what a science lab costs, it’s probably about the same.

TRACY WHOLF:  Using a combination of public money, grants and private donations, New York Sun Works helps design and build greenhouse labs that will suit each school’s needs.

The program’s curriculum was designed to fulfill requirements mandated by the New York state science standards. And by using hydroponics as a tool, not only can teachers cover general science topics, it also encourages discussions about developing sustainable systems to help alleviate problems faced in urban environments.

TRACY WHOLF: So tell me, what have you guys built, what is this?

JADEN AULT, 7th GRADE STUDENT:  This is a VIG, a vertically integrated growing system.

TRACY WHOLF:  So what kind of plants have you planted in yours?

JADEN AULT: Lettuce, basil and kale

TRACY WHOLF:  So this is something I could grow on my roof?

OSSIAN HELLER, 7th GRADE STUDENT: Yeah, like, if you went to your landlord and asked him, “Can I grow some plants on the roof?” And he said, “Uh, sure.” Um, it’s easier to get your food from local place and it’s healthier and it’s cool and, yeah.

SHAKIRA, 2ND GRADE TEACHER: If you’re harvesting, please select a large plant.

TRACY WHOLF: With the help of the students, this particular greenhouse can produce up to 9,000 lbs. Of produce a year – more than the kids could ever eat. So this class of second graders voted to donate their greens to meals-on-wheels…

SHAKIRA, 2ND GRADE TEACHER: Thank you, appreciate it.

TRACY WHOLF: …which delivered the produce to a senior citizen’s center in midtown Manhattan.

SIDSEL ROBARDS: So one of the great things about all of the produce they create here is that it’s a great way to connect to the community.

TRACY WHOLF:  Just like the students, many businesses are also experimenting with hydroponic greenhouses – a point not lost on the kids.

ERIN MOUGHAN-SMITH, 7th GRADE TEACHER: The kids are like, “Who else has a greenhouse?” They’re starting to get really into it and germinate. “They’re like, “We heard this high school has one! We know that they have a greenhouse over there and what else can we do?”

TRACY WHOLF:  With 20 more greenhouse labs in development, New York Sun Works is well on its way to reaching its goal of 100 labs by 2020. And the trend is catching on in other parts of the country. New York Sun Works has been contacted by school districts in Colorado and Oregon to bring the program to their states.

And with more commercial hydroponic farms opening up in Oklahoma City, St. Louis and Washington D.C., urban farming continues to grow.

SIDSEL ROBARDS:  There’s a lot of science concepts in the farming system. I think it’s a great way to show kids that science is not just guys in white lab coats, it’s actually everything that’s around us. It’s science for everyone because everyone needs a good science education.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.