Discovering Sustainability Science

Recently, Knology partnered with New York Sun Works to assess the impact of two resources that were designed to promote science learning among children through studying plant biology and food systems in urban areas.

by Rupu GuptaNicole LaMarcaBennett AttawayKate Flinner
Sep 29, 2021

New York Sun Works (NY Sun Works) has been a leader in providing year-round, hands-on science and sustainability education for K-12 grade students in urban schools. Starting in 2010, the organization invested in environmental education through hydroponic Greenhouse Classrooms and science curricula. NY Sun Works Greenhouse Classrooms offer students the opportunity to grow food, while learning about urban agriculture, plant biology, human interactions with the environment, ecology, and human impacts on the environment.

Today, 170 schools across the metropolitan area have NY Sun Works Greenhouse Classrooms. However, in spring 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic closed New York City schools, which introduced fully remote and hybrid learning models. Students and teachers could no longer depend on access to Greenhouse Classrooms as laboratories to explore urban farming, topics in plant biology, ecology, chemistry, as well as human interactions with and human impacts on the environment. In response to the changing landscape of education, NY Sun Works adapted the Discovering Sustainability Science curriculum and created a new tool, the Home Hydroponic Kits and companion lessons, as an extension of the curriculum.

The Discovering Sustainability Science curriculum was designed to promote science learning through studying plant biology and food systems in urban areas. The Home Hydroponic Kits and a new set of lessons aimed to bring the science to life as students assemble and experiment with their own miniature plant laboratory at home. Together, these tools were intended to help students learn about and be a part of solutions for environmental and social challenges. At the writing of this report, NY Sun Works distributed over 12,500 kits to students across 79 schools.

What are the real-life outcomes of this investment in Discovering Sustainability Science and the Home Hydroponic Kits? In 2021, NY Sun Works partnered with Knology to study how teachers and students use these materials. The evaluation explored the impacts of these resources, with a particular focus on the types of science learning students take part in. We also examined the special role these tools have for supporting students during a time of isolation brought on by the pandemic.


The case study of the NY Sun Works program revealed education tools that empower teachers and strengthens their ability to guide science learning. At their core, the Discovering Sustainability Science curriculum and the Home Hydroponic Kits embody innovation, flexibility, hands-on learning, and critical thinking that meet the challenges of an uncertain education landscape created by the COVID-19 pandemic. The kits retained the core characteristics of the Greenhouse Classrooms, offering students interactive learning tasks and the opportunity to experiment with plant biology.

The Home Hydroponic Kits situated teachers as learners first and foremost, especially educators who were new to NY Sun Works. Educators valued the process of growing a range of skills and knowledge, from understanding seemingly abstract science concepts like germination to gaining pedagogical strategies for engaging students in science learning. Teachers were able to adapt and tailor the curriculum to address the diverse needs of their students. They applauded the hands-on nature of the curriculum as especially beneficial for students whose needs are unmet by conventional classroom science curriculum.

As key informants of student impacts, teachers provided a rich picture of the myriad ways students had benefited from the Discovering Sustainability Science curriculum and the kits. Using the National Research Council’s 2009 framework as a guide, we found that students of different ages learned and applied science concepts like experimental research design, problem solved by adjusting variables to help their plants grow, and connected their science learning to the natural systems surrounding them. Moreover, students were eager to engage with the kits, expressing curiosity about science as they worked on their projects.

The impacts stretched beyond science learning. The curriculum and particularly the kits provided students with much-needed vehicle for social-emotional support as virtual schooling became the norm. This development was critical especially during the stressful context of the pandemic. The kits provided students with hands-on projects that helped them focus during virtual learning. The process of growing plants offered a hopeful, enjoyable experience that stood in contrast to the public health challenges that fluctuated throughout the school year. In caring for their plants, students were also growing their sense of responsibility and efficacy, meaning they gained a sense that they could achieve their goals. Throughout the process, they supported their peers even when their own experiments didn’t work, and collaborated on presenting their projects to their classmates. Students even involved their family members in their projects, demonstrating the resources’ value for promoting family bonding and inter-generational learning.

This impacts study of the Discovery Sustainability Science Curriculum points to the possibilities of the E-STEM movement which advocates for environmental education to be integrated into learning science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). In practice, E-STEM is an approach that uses learning about the Environment as a pathway to STEM learning (Flinner et al., 2020; Gupta et al., 2018). E-STEM taps into several educational best practices: project-based environmental learning that is hands-on, connects STEM with daily experiences, aligns learning experiences with students’ existing interests, and fosters achievement and empowerment by equipping students to pursue their own inquiry (Fraser et al., 2013). These characteristics are central to NY Sun Works’ overarching approach and are explicit in the Discovering Sustainability Science curriculum and Home Hydroponic Kits. NY Sun Works has been recognized in the past for these achievements through the UL Innovative Education Award and the EPA Environmental Champion Award. This study suggests that the program continues to serve as an inspiration for E-STEM learning.

The NY Sun Works team was the engine for innovation and creativity in envisioning a resource that could cultivate students and educators during the pandemic. The team worked quickly in spring 2020 to incorporate flexibility and extra scaffolding into their materials. The Home Hydroponic Kits were a key innovation in this approach. The result was a more adaptive and usable learning tool that schools used across a wide variety of communities and different education models, including fully remote, in-person, and a hybrid of the two.

The cover photo is used with permission from NY Sun Works

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