Most adults who’ve attended an event titled “The Sustainability Workshop,” probably sat in a room for six long hours, scribbled some notes on stormwater issues or soil erosion, ate a few crusty danish, (awkwardly) networked, and then went home soon to forget most of what they learned. However, if you are a 17-year-old student in Philadelphia, attending The Sustainability Workshop (TSW) it means that you have opted into a yearlong alternative high school experience whose mission is “to unleash your creative and intellectual potential to solve the world’s toughest problems.” These exceptional high school seniors trade in their old classrooms for the chance to work on real projects including the Hybrid X car design challenge. And starting next year, TSW will be expanding into a full four year high school.
Founded as an afterschool program 15 years ago by teacher and engineer Simon Hauger to engage his students in math, science and engineering, the students at TSW have won multiple national competitions with the hybrid vehicles they designed and built. The biggest win came this spring when the School District of Philadelphia announced an award through their partner, Philadelphia School Partnership, of $6 million to three high-performing schools: Science Leadership Academy, Hill Freedman Middle School, and The Sustainability Workshop (which will receive $1.5 million of the funds). This money will allow TSW to double their current enrollment to 60 by next year, eventually growing to 500. Of the 28 students graduating last year, 96% were accepted to college and 74% matriculated, a major achievement when only 34 percent of Philadelphia High School graduates are enrolled in college by the fall (based on 2009 data, the most current numbers available). TSW's expansion to a full 9-12 high school couldn't be more timely, providing more opportunities for students displaced by recent school closings.
While TSW students had their beginnings in automotive engineering, they are not just gearheads. These high school seniors collaborate on a wide variety of projects including disaster relief structures, designing their own future school building, and a vegetable garden. In addition to the $1.5m city award, the students received an exciting $10K challenge to compete against their peers at the John V. Lindsay Wildcat Charter School in the Bronx to see which team could build a superior model for sustainable urban agriculture. Mayors Mayor Michael A. Nutter and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have placed a friendly bet on the outcome. Teams are mentored by teachers and a local farmer with funds from FreshDirect to build a hydroponic garden. Gardens from both schools will be unveiled next month at FreshDirect headquarters in Long Island City, NY on June 11. The hydroponic garden is a great example of project-based learning and sustainability education coming together. Thankfully, more students will have the chance to learn in these dynamic environments.
The Sustainability Workshop students and teachers have come up with a winning program design, and now they will have the resources to support more student-led sustainability projects by a growing student body. We can’t wait to see what they do next!
MORGAN BERMAN is the Director of Community Engagement for Grid Magazine as well as a designer of sustainable spaces.