South Bronx 'GreenFab' Customizes Education

Program focused on preparing the future work force fabricates educational success in New York's South Bronx.

by / February 23, 2010
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Photo: Using the computer and laser fabricating machinery, this GreenFab girl has turned recycled packing material into a professional looking sign that carries an environmental message. To complete this assignment, students post their work in a prominent place in the community. Photo by Mark Gura

Often described with terms like "urban blight" and "toxic environment," the Hunts Point neighborhood in New York's Bronx does, in fact, have its share of determination and positive impact.

One such example is the GreenFab educational program at Bronx Guild High School, which is designed to foster 21st-century skills in at-risk youth and prepare them for work force readiness in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)-related fields, and primarily green collar jobs.

GreenFab evolved as a response to inner-city students' educational need for instruction that connects with them. The program draws on students' environmental and economic conditions and problems as raw material from which to create an instructional program -- and the staff doesn't see the school as a technical or a job-training institution.

"We're a college prep school that uses real-world experiences to improve academics," said Co-Director Jeff Palladino, adding that GreenFab impacts the kids because it exposes them to STEM subjects through real-world issues, he said. "They help our kids connect academic subject matter to real-life applications, experiment and create things, and solve problems that directly impact them, especially environmental justice issues."

Work Force Preparation

Some students are interested in creative technology, and some are interested in the environmental work, Palladino said, but the program provides numerous opportunities that can be customized to individual needs.

"We want them to find their passions and run with them," he said. "For instance, one of my seniors hopes to follow his passion for technology and create robots that will assist people with disabilities, people like returning war veterans who have lost limbs. He wants to get into the biomedical field through this interest."

Laura Allen, president of Vision Education and Media, which heads up the GreenFab program, said she is struck by Bronx Guild High School's knowledge of what its students need -- and that its students aren't on the same footing as typical middle-class kids. "Bronx Guild really tries, in innovative ways, to piece together a high school experience that can get these kids well on the road to being productive citizens," she said.

Bronx Guild High School has a well articulated vision of learning through meaningful work, and work force preparation is a major thrust at the school.

Students participate in off-campus internships, which may represent the most meaningful portion of their educational experience, and roughly 80 Bronx Guild students participate in GreenFab internships each year.

The student interns report to GreenFab for a special curriculum that includes elements of applied science, engineering and environmental studies with a focus on understanding the urban environment, said Corbett Beder, senior director of research and development at Vision Education and Media.

Four major themes run through the curriculum:

  • sustainable design, using materials recycled from the local environment;
  • electrical engineering; 
  • community advocacy in environmental understanding and sustainable living; and 
  • computing and technology.

Through hands-on projects, students learn how to work with computers, and they design and build electronic devices that address environmental needs. Projects include building working model wind turbines and solar vehicles -- things that can have direct impact on the environment. They also learn to apply things they create to help raise community consciousness about the environment and how human behavior can help or harm it.

"Many of these students are struggling to find a way to 'do' high school that's going to be beneficial for them," Beder said, noting that the program aims

to show they will not only graduate high school, but also find jobs.

Students are prepared practically for jobs in growth industries, especially green jobs, which are rapidly expanding despite the decline of older industrial businesses.

Fast Fact: The BankNote building is a massive red brick structure in the Bronx, and is a good example of an older industrial structure that's been reinvigorated. Opened in 1909 as the principal plant of the American Bank Note Company, it lay fallow in 1985 when American Bank Note moved its operations out of New York City. However, it was recently rehabbed by sensitive and creative real estate developers, and is now the home of numerous community initiatives, including GreenFab.

GreenFab in Action

Late last year, a 15-year-old named Jorge was hard at work inside a GreenFab classroom: After sketching a graffiti-inspired design for a neck ornament, he scanned and saved it in a graphics file format, and then imported it into Photoshop for some tweaking. He then reopened it in Inkscape, software that takes the design and directs a high-tech laser cutter to burn the shape through whatever material its beam is trained on. In this case, Jorge used recycled Lucite.

The laser cutter, an item few high school students have access to, is part of the Fab Lab, an international project started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Bits and Atoms. The Fab Lab aims to bring "digital fabrication," the modern means of production, to ordinary people for solving community problems.

Before hitting the laser cutter's switch, however, Jorge had to calculate size, scale and other factors to get to the finished product -- something he was producing as a paid commission for a client. Later, he would write up his day's work and submit it to the GreenFab student blog, a required part of the program that ensures students learn literacy skills alongside the others.

That same day, other students used the laser cutter to produce a variety of items in the Fab Lab, such as elegantly designed cardboard placards to post throughout the community to raise environmental awareness.

The Fab Lab is part of Sustainable South Bronx, a community organization dedicated to environmental justice solutions. The organization's Fab Lab coordinator Jon Santiago said the most important skill students learn in GreenFab is independent learning, and traditional academic settings in urban communities often don't inspire youth to pursue careers as engineers, scientists or designers.

"With access to fabrication tools, the Internet and knowledgeable mentors, students are able to complete sophisticated projects that are usually only done by those with extensive preparation in science and mathematics," Santiago said. "Our hope is that these exciting projects, which are inspired through the lens of sustainability, will inspire them to buckle down academically so they can pursue careers in emerging green technology fields. Regardless of what career they pursue, their experience in GreenFab will be of tremendous value, as it will teach them how to teach themselves."

Ashley Lewis, a research associate with the Center for Children and Technology -- an organization that tracks and evaluates GreenFab -- said the program has been rewarding for the students who enjoy science, design, hands-on projects and the connections to the outside world. "I think an integral part of the success is the relationship that develops with the instructors who provide a lot of individualized help," she said. "The students feel as if they are being treated as professionals. It's a very collaborative experience for them."

Learning is an interdisciplinary activity, Allen said, and at GreenFab this understanding is "alive and well and in full implementation."

"Getting kids on the path to effective learning starts with having them make things, and with the right strategies and hard work, this kind of out-of the-box, almost-too-good-to-be-true education is really possible," she said. "I attribute our success to the fact that the staff is incredibly devoted to these students and making the project work. There are so many disenfranchised kids out there, and my hope is that this program can grow and we can find a way to impact more of them."