Originally published in Issue 15
By Sidsel Robards
Not many teachers can come back to school telling students that their summer vacation included a visit to The White House to pick up a Presidential Award. But Shakira Provasoli, resident science teacher at The Sun Works Center at PS333 in New York City, did exactly that after an August ceremony where she received a presidential honor from the EPA for her outstanding work as an environmental educator.
Established in 2011, the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators recognizes teachers who employ innovative approaches to environmental education and use the environment as a context for learning for their students. The award comes with a cash prize toward further professional development and is matched with a grant for the teacher’s school to further fund environmental educational activities and programs.
Rooftop greenhouse classroom
Shakira has been an educator for 16 years, and was part of the first cohort of the NASA Endeavor program. In the past five years she has been a science cluster teacher at The Sun Works Center at PS333. Her classroom is a 1,450-square-foot rooftop hydroponic greenhouse built by NY Sun Works. During the week she works with about 660 kindergarten to 5th grade students, who learn about everything from systems and cycles, environmental interaction, sustainable solutions, and sustainable cities – all through the lens of urban agriculture.
When Shakira was a classroom teacher, she strived to know the whole person in her students. But she says teaching all K to 5th grades as the greenhouse teacher gives her the opportunity to know them on a much deeper level. She learns not only if a child can read on grade level; she knows who shares highly coveted aquaponics tools, who gently transplants seedlings, who has enough stamina to power all four light bulbs on the energy bike and who can always spot the hidden frogs.
Hands-on, project-based science
Outside the classroom, Shakira’s contribution to the NY Sun Works program goes much deeper. She was one of the first teachers to join the team led by NY Sun Works’ Executive Director Manuela Zamora, to develop the extensive K through 12th grade curriculum Discovering Sustainability Science. The curriculum goes hand-in-hand with the organization’s hydroponic science labs and offers a new way of teaching hands-on, project-based science while covering state-mandated standards. The in-depth curriculum is being used in NY Sun Works’ partner schools throughout New York City and the state and is featured in an eponymous annual youth conference.
In 2012, NY Sun Works launched a teacher training program. There was no question that Shakira would be the ideal candidate to lead the 36-hour course, “Water, Waste and Energy: integrating themes of sustainability into the classroom.” Since the course was implemented, it has been offered through the N.Y. Department of Education 16 times and has trained more than 150 teachers from both public and private schools in New York.
With her Presidential Innovation Award, Shakira hopes to show other educators how critical environmental education is to students and to our planet. School age children today need to have the tools to spark creative ideas for solutions that will lessen the effects of climate change in the future.
Sidsel Robards, Director, Development and Events, NY SunWorks
NY Sun Works is a non-profit organization that builds innovative science labs in urban schools. Through their Greenhouse Project Initiative they use hydroponic farming technology to educate students and teachers about the science of sustainability. www.nysunworks.org