..Lese Dunton..

Children Take Science to a Higher Place

These days the study of science is as hot as the summer sun, and it's a good thing because scientific know-how comes in handy when trying to fix the planet. It's hip to help the earth get healthy.

PBS and Charlie Rose like to talk science. So does Alan Alda at the World Science Festival. Mayor Bloomberg, long-time fan of science, has put it to work on his payroll.

Eric Dutt was a New York City science teacher with an idea to build a greenhouse on top of the school roof. After his 
sudden passing last year of heart problems at age 34, his students joined together to uphold and expand his green 
dream for Public School 6 on East 81st Street.

"Children are sponges and they're so empowered," says the school principal, Lauren Fontana. "They take an idea and run with it."

It has blossomed into a generously funded, carefully designed "Eric Dutt Eco-Center" for PS 6. The open-air, plant-producing roof will also become a model for green solutions atop other schools and all kinds of buildings in New York. This verdant venture is refreshingly effective, seriously helpful, and wonderfully educational. And the view is lovely.

The city of New York has proposed funding for $800,000. When added to the already-raised $300,000, they are nearly $150,000 away from rolling up their sleeves to begin hammering. While no construction date has been set, planners estimate 2009 by the time various city permits and the rest of the funding comes through.

"At first, people had all different ideas," says fifth-grader Alex Sudolsky, 11, founder of Eco-Kids, a now school-wide group of young activists. "Then we all came together and made one plan that we agreed on. It formed together to make one awesome thing."

How would you summarize this awesome thing? "There's going to be a greenhouse, solar panels, a turtle pond, and a weather channel," explains Alex. "Each class is going to have their own planting area, so each kid can have their own plant." Right next to all that growing, teachers will give classes under a large canopy in the shade.

Before you know it, the cafeteria will offer fresh veggies grown by the students, delivered directly by walking down the stairs.

"There's a school in Staten Island that does have an active greenhouse, but I don't think a roof top. We'll be the first full green roof on a New York City public school," says Marcia Sudolsky, president of the Alumni Association and mother of Alex. "The students are excited, but the parents are just as excited about when and how and what can we do."

Such enthusiasm has attracted Columbia University's Engineering Department as a partner in teaching and planning.

Other participants and sponsors include Douglas Durst and his daughter Helena of The Durst Organization (the leading developer of green buildings in New York), Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Designer Peter Wilcox of The Downtown Group, the Marino Organization, Inc., Myachi Man, My Bag Cares, Inc., Paul Evans Caterers, Pizzaria Uno, and philanthropist Evelyn Lauder.

Columbia University students have already begun showing the elementary school children how solar panels can generate renewable energy for the building, and have helped create a weather station, which they hope will be broadcast on a local news channel. Designers are studying ways to make the best use of rainwater, as well as compost from leftover lunch food.

"The students don't have to wait until they're a scientist or a political lobbyist," says Principal Fontana. "They realize, 'I can be activist now and help my community now, which also then helps my community in the future.'"

Fourth-grader Ben Singer, who has a way with words and a flair for fund-raising, describes the appeal of the teacher who started it all. "He was such a warm gentle guy, always funny. He was never looking to get anyone in trouble or make anyone feel bad. And whenever you were down at any point, he would immediately take action — and just do the best he could possibly do — to comfort you, make you laugh. That's why we want to honor him. He taught us many life-long lessons about global warming, the environment, and how we can help. He was great."

Fifth-grader Charles Mournet agrees. "He's basically the whole reason we're doing this because this was like his dream."

"I feel like he's right above us, watching us and guiding us," adds classmate Jordan Sitomer. "I feel like we've really been successful, and the Eco-Center is going to be an example citywide."

With urban farming on the rise, the nation's largest seed company, W. Atlee Burpee & Co., reports that sales have doubled in the past year.

Maybe next year, you can buy your seeds from the kids on East 81st Street.

Copyright © 2008 The New Sun. All rights reserved.