Heroic Endeavors: Maggie Belizaire, Mike Zamm and Student Visions of a Sustainable Future

What do high school kids from Marine Park, Brooklyn, NY know about food, water and energy? Turns out they know plenty if they're in Maggie Belizaire's environmental science class at James Madison High School, and they're willing to share their knowledge with the rest of us. 

On May 19 at the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan, six teams showed off models of sustainable food, water and energy production they built as part of GrowNYC's Union Square Green Energy Fair. Topics included wastewater treatment, rooftop farming, renewable energy and sustainable building design. The kids were proud of their models and they were eager to discuss their projects with anyone who would listen.

Being a fan of the environmental sciences (and a constant student of it myself) I'm always happy to see kids taking an interest in how they can impact the world, so I contacted the organizers Ms. Belizaire and Mike Zamm of GrowNYC to find out more.


Maggie Belizaire, James Madison High School 

What kicked off the project?

MB: This is an annual project at James Madison High School in the Marine Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. It started in the 90s, and was designed to introduce green design to the students. This is important because the kids need to understand the negative impacts taking place on our environment. A lot of kids don't have any knowledge about this stuff and we want to get them involved at a young age so they will know more about what's coming in their future. 

We also talk about products - deodorant, hair spray, other beauty products - how do these products affect you biologically and how do they affect the environment? 

I gave them a research assignment about environmental careers where they had to look up salaries and educational requirements. This is important for them to know that these jobs are out there. These are careers that they could go into and they had no idea they existed. I want them to think, "How can I make a difference?" and "How can we make a difference in our world?"

Were there more projects than those presented at Union Square?

MB: I teach three environmental science classes. In each class there were six, six and seven projects. We picked the best ones and a total of six of them were presented at Union Square. The fair is organized by Mike Zamm, GrowNYC's director of environmental education.

We selected projects where the groups had obviously done research and had knowledge about the topics. We invited a jury of other teachers to be on the judging panel. The students did very detailed work. I call them "architects." They have to do a drawing and a model, and they know I want quality work. The judges looked at the projects, made suggestions for improvements, then we interviewed the students. Most of these students have Individualized Education Plans [Ed: meaning they have some sort of disability] and this is really big for them. It's very new.

We started the projects on April 1st. I gave three lectures on sustainable development and the topic of "What does it mean to go green?" Then Mr. Zamm came in to talk with them and they started working on their drafts. On April 8th they presented their proposals and on April 9th they started construction of their models. They were done with construction in about three and a half weeks. 

You've taught them how to propose research.

MB: This is really about college readiness. This is the key in my class, it's a drill to prepare for college.They worked so diligently and they take pride in their projects. They had to learn how to work in a group and how to be leaders. If a group doesn't have a leader, it won't move forward and I encouraged some of them by saying, "If you're group doesn't have a leader, then be a leader."

What was the biggest takeaway for the kids after completing these projects? 

MB: The biggest takeaway for them is that, when you produce quality work, it shows and the public sees it. 

Now, they have a much better knowledge of green design and they can think to themselves, "I can do this in the future." Also, they spread this knowledge to other kids. They know that they can articulate it and present it. One of my students said to me, "You're the first teacher that ever had me do a professional project."

What's the biggest surprise for you about the whole process?

MB: The biggest surprise for me is the attention they got from kids, adults and the media. They were featured in a segment on Fox News. That makes me very proud as a teacher. I am so proud of them.

This year, some of the students entered the James Madison Science Fair and we are waiting on the judgment. We should know in about two weeks. Last year, my students entered the Green Energy Fair and also the James Madison Science Fair and three of them won. I want them to know, "I can do this. I can achieve greatness."

How did you get the models to Union Square?

MB: We took the train. All the kids carried their models on the subway.

What's your background?

MB: I grew up in Flatbush and now I live in Canarsie. I've been teaching for 16 years, and specifically environmental sciences for six or seven years. I have a Bachelors in Health Science and a Masters in Early education. I also work with autistic children, after school.


Mike Zamm, GROW NYC

How long has the Green Energy Fair been running?

MZ: It's been running for 11 years. The first five years were at the High School for Environmental Studies on their roof. We had kids from Edward R. Murrow who built solar ovens and the kids from James Madison who did green design. But the audience was all High School for Environmental Studies students. So six years ago we moved it to the Union Square Greenmarket, where we have a wider audience with shoppers and the projects get a lot more publicity. It's really a nice opportunity for the kids.

How long have you been involved with the Green Energy Fair?

MZ: I've been involved with James Madison since 1979. About 11 or 12 years ago, David Sapphire, Project Coordinator for Learn it, Grow it, Eat it at GrowNYC thought it would be a good idea to get students thinking about green design in a way that was sophisticated and comprehensive, so they would learn about saving energy, reducing pollution and improving the environment. I've been involved with it for the last six years.

What do you think is the biggest take away for the kids?

MZ: The kids learn that they can do something to affect change. They have the confidence to go out and educate the public. And now they're more environmentally aware about a safer energy future.

How are the projects received by the public at the fair?

MZ: The public is very interested. They observe and ask a lot of questions. They see that the kids are doing this and that this is something we need to be talking about. The audience at the fair is probably more enlightened to begin with. Sometimes at other venues we get some climate change deniers who don't get it.

What's the biggest surprise for you each year?

MZ: These students are typically more middle of the road. They're not all from regents classes [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regents_Examinations]. When I go there every years I think to myself, "There's no way this is going to work," as I get all these blank stares from the kids when we first start talking about the projects. I end up seeing a major change. The kids get turned on and excited. In the end they're answering questions about their projects from a judging panel and they know what they're talking about. This is only possible if teachers make it happen. Mrs. Belizaire, she just takes them to another level.

What other projects does GrowNYC have going on for kids?

MZ: I'm about to go away for two days with a small group of kids to the Catskills to work in the [NYC] watershed. We'll also be looking at some farms. 

We have the Healthy Kids Healthy Schools program which is an amalgam of seven programs. We just had a spring fest with one school, and at another the kids planted a garden, mulched trees, played recycling games and rode the bike-powered blender we have. We have a lot of food-oriented stuff. We just did the Big Apple Crunch which was a thing to get as many people as possible to eat apples in one day and think about healthy eating.

We focus on water and watersheds, energy and green design. We've planted over 9,000 trees in the watershed and about 15,000 plants overall since 1999. We've created some pretty lush areas to prevent erosion and protect drinking water. And we've recently integrated a food component.

We had a component on urban environmental monitoring where the kids would report their data to city officials but there's no more funding for that so we focus on the programs that are funded.