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Greening the Staten Island Bluebelt

It was the end of the school year and the children were still excited about learning! In fact, I have never seen my students so passionate about creating and showing projects to judges. But these were no ordinary projects and this was no ordinary science fair. And in the end, I also learned this was no ordinary program, thanks to the extra special group of children and mentors involved.

Fifty of my seventh and eighth graders had worked a whole year after school and on weekends at one of our Adopt-A-Bluebelt sites as part of our newest science enrichment venture at St. Clare's School in Staten Island where I teach. Thanks to the support of the Staten Island Bluebelt Unit from the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and startup funding from the Timberland Company, the St. Clare's Advanced Environmental Team was born and my students were actively collecting data in the field and analyzing it in the classroom. This included soil and water tests as well as animal and plant surveys and contour mapping, plus frequent and laborious cleanups and plantings at this outsized and diverse stretch of land in the Dongan Hills area of Staten Island.

In the second half of the year, the students were challenged to play the role of environmental engineers. Working in teams, they were to apply the information learned to create models of different sections of this Bluebelt system using effective Best Management Practices. This ranged from using weir walls to retention basins to stone-based culverts, diverters and natural vegetation on a site recently acquired by DEP.

The students' designs were to ensure a healthy wetland ecosystem that would serve as a natural filtration system for water runoff as it finds its way into the ocean from inland storm sewers and collection basins. Proper water drainage that would prevent flooding of nearby residences, the use of native vegetation, and aesthetic and recreational concerns were also factored in.

To help set the stage for this engineering showcase I called "Greening Our Bluebelt," the students did some additional research on the DEP website to learn designing tips. We toured the now closed Fresh Kills Landfill with the Urban Park Rangers to learn about the ecological restoration techniques being used there to create a world class park. We even enjoyed a trip on a big fishing boat and caught fluke in the waters near Ocean Breeze and Midland Beach where this bluebelt system drains to realize the full impact of all their cleanups.

After working on their Bluebelt models for months in the classroom and at home, the students were finally ready. They used clay to contour the land and design their water systems. They added some natural and imitation plants and animals to the sites as well as a variety of other extra components. Each team was given a specific plot within the site and, when all was done, the plots could be connected to show the entire run from start to finish. Each team also had a research report and an informative poster.

With representatives from DEP (Jack Crawford, Jim Rossi, Joseph Scarlotta, Mike Mormile and Mary Jane Walczyszyn of the S.I. Bluebelt Unit, and Min Kan, an environmental educator), the Staten Island Museum (Ed Johnson and Lenore Miller) and even Timberland (Jeff Fuchs) serving as judges, the students showed ownership over their plots and enthusiastically presented their ideas. The vegetation and plans varied according to where their sites were situated and how the teams thought the community could best be served.

Some teams included fishing and canoeing areas, parks, and special areas for nature study. One team superimposed an enlarged aerial photograph of the site with on a map of the streets and houses nearby to show its exact location. Another team researched what type of piping could be used within the system using Popular Mechanics magazine for reference, while other teams considered solar-powered generators for area lighting or even aeration pumps or waterfalls for aquatic animals. One group went so far as to project income for activities at their site based on similar projects and recommended using profits for maintenance and patrols of the site to prevent pollution and destruction of their plot.

One of the highlights was the water test. In the end, the teams had to show the judges how water actually moves through its system. Water was poured onto the models and the system had to be waterproofed and contoured correctly as leaky systems would indicate a "flooding" situation. To observe the students on each team collectively hover over their models and watch the pouring process with intensity and anticipation only proved further the importance they placed on the project and pride they had in their work. Another highlight was the video slideshow of all their work in the field that led to this culminating activity.

Despite protests of the judges, who loved all the students' ideas, winners had to be selected. But the real prize was that so many experts in the field supported the program from start to finish and then came to listen to the students and provide immediate feedback on their ideas.

"I remember when I was in school. I had no idea what I wanted to be until a teacher gave me an assignment to design an area and told me I had talent in landscape design. She actually inspired me to become what I am now," said Dean Cavallaro, a landscape architect and engineer with the DEP who helped with student plantings at this site. "You have no idea how a program like this will affect these children in the future. They are our leaders of tomorrow and we need to provide them with opportunities that foster stewardship and environmental awareness and allow them to recognize and develop their talents to that end."

Certainly, all the outside groups and even the parents, teachers, and school administration who supported these students are to thank. There is no doubt each student walked away from this program feeling a sense of accomplishment. But it is also my hope they will carry what they learned with them the rest of their lives and it will empower them to have a positive impact on the lives of others and the world around them.