NYC Program Empowers Students to Evaluate Climate RiSC

Hurricanes on Steroids

The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season has broken all records in terms of the quantity and intensity of consecutive storms, their destructive power, and the toll on human life, wildlife, critical infrastructure, and the environment.  After Sandy battered New York City (NYC) in October 2012, 200 school buildings sustained damages, forcing the relocation of tens of thousands of students; 1.1 million NYC school children were unable to attend school for a week, and 12% of teachers had homes in flood zones.

A 2015 New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC) report projects sea level to rise 11 to 21 inches by the 2050s and up to 6 feet by 2100. Increased sea level will bring coastal flooding and fiercer storm events as the oceans and atmosphere continue to warm. Will NYC schools be prepared? According to a 2014 report by the Center for an Urban Future, ‘over 370 of the city’s 1,200 public school buildings predate the Great Depression, and temperamental heating and cooling systems, leaky roofs, and broken elevators are common.’ Despite this, 500 NYC schools serve as emergency shelters, according to the NYC Department of Education (NYCDOE) Office of Sustainability.  New resiliency guidelines for NYC buildings issued in April 2017 apply to new construction but it’s unclear how, or whether, NYC’s older building stock, including schools, will be retrofitted or protected.

Rising Seas Mandate the Inclusion of Schools in Resilience Planning

Until now, the NYCDOE – comprising over 1,400 school buildings (30% of the City’s municipal building stock) – has been absent from the City’s primary resilience planning document, OneNYC.

Given NYC’s increasing vulnerability to storms and rising seas, there is an urgent need to develop K‐12 climate resiliency plans for NYC schools that will help students, faculty, and districts prepare for future extreme weather events.

Thanks to a $500,000 Environmental Literacy Grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA), the National Wildlife Federation’s NYC Eco-Schools is partnering with Professor Brett Branco of Brooklyn College, the NYCDOE, the Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay (SRIJB), and New York Sea Grant to create and launch the Resilient Schools Consortium (RiSC). The aim of the RiSC program is to prepare students to assess the vulnerabilities of their schools and communities to extreme weather events, create small-scale resiliency projects at their schools, and help draft climate resilience guidelines for the NYCDOE.

The RiSC program launches in October 2017 as both an after school and in-school pilot program and will engage up to 500 students and over a dozen teachers in seven public middle and high schools (members of the Brooklyn Marine STEAM Education Alliance) located in the vulnerable coastal community of South Brooklyn. Participating schools were either severely damaged during Sandy in 2012 or served as shelters for displaced students and their families.

“In the face of monster storms like Maria, Irma, Harvey in 2017, and Sandy in NYC, we need an entire generation of students to become climate literate as quickly as possible,” says Frank Niepold, NOAA’s Climate Education Coordinator and a RiSC Advisory Board member.

“In the face of monster storms like Maria, Irma, Harvey in 2017, and Sandy in NYC, we need an entire generation of students to become climate literate as quickly as possible,” says Frank Niepold, NOAA’s Climate Education Coordinator and a RiSC Advisory Board member. “More importantly, given the impacts that society will face from a rapidly changing climate – droughts, floods, rising seas, wildfires, heat waves and the like – students and adults need to build the skills that allow them to understand risk and vulnerability and build more resilient societies. NOAA’s Environmental Literacy Grant Program supports projects like RiSC so students can gain those critical skills and become ambassadors for resilience,” he said.

Creating Climate Literate Students and More Resilient Schools

MS88 science teachers and RiSC curriculum designers Andrew Zimmermann and Lynn Shon at NOAA’s ELP Grantee Workshop, Boston, September 2017. Photo: NWF

NWF and partners agree that climate literacy is an urgent task and have been busy planning. A RiSC project team began meeting bi-weekly in October 2016. The team included Lynn Shon and Andrew Zimmermann – science teachers from MS88 Brooklyn – who designed the innovative, STEM-focused RiSC curriculum, which emphasizes project-based learning, and is aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards.  Shon sat on the NYCDOE’s Science Leadership Team – a Committee revising the NYC Science Scope and Sequence, which will place a greater emphasis on climate literacy.

“Climate change education is disproportionately focused on the problems (causes, failures), which is both divisive and unproductive,” says Shon. “The RiSC curriculum takes a different approach by empowering students to be the drivers of climate literacy in their communities, and of resiliency planning across NYC schools. Students and teachers are empowered to understand the causes and future impacts of climate change, and then take action by designing and implementing real-world resilience projects for their schools,” she says.

A Novel Climate RiSC Assessment for Schools

RiSC teachers and project team gathered at Brooklyn College for a 4-day teacher PD Institute, August 28-31, 2017. Photo: Heather Sioux

RiSC Program Coordinator and Brooklyn College graduate Heather Sioux developed the RiSC Vulnerability Assessment with Shon and Zimmermann. The Assessment asks students to audit their school buildings, neighborhoods, critical infrastructure, and vulnerability to sea level rise and coastal flooding –  the same categories in OneNYC’s Vision 4: Our Resilient City.

With $2,500 in seed funding, students will design, execute and monitor a small‐scale school‐based resiliency project, such as a rain garden. At RiSC Summits in June 2018 and 2019, the student teams will meet and share their work, as well as talk with local resilience practitioners and partners. In 2019, a set of student generated “Climate Resilience Guidelines for NYC Schools” will be presented to City officials.

Preparing Teachers for RiSC

The RiSC team tours Paerdegat Basin Park with NYCDEP’s John McLaughlin. Photo: NWF

Teachers have been gearing up to teach the RiSC program in their schools. In August, the project team hosted a 4-day RiSC Teacher Professional Development Institute at Brooklyn College which allowed teachers to get to know each other and explore the new curriculum. Field trips included a lunch on Plumb Beach hosted by RiSC Advisory Board Member and SRIJB Director, Adam Parris, who spoke to teachers about the potential impacts of sea level rise. Next, a trip to the Paerdegat Basin CSO facility, run by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and designed to mitigate extreme rainfall events.

John McLaughlin, Director of the DEP’s Office of Ecosystem Services, Green Infrastructure and Research led a tour of nearby Paerdegat Basin Park which showcases nature-based features like berms and drainage swales that help to mitigate flooding of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Sharing RiSC

Shon (left), Zimmerman (bottom left), students, and NWF staff joined Meredith McDermott, Director of NYCDOE Office of Sustainability at UNICEF Headquarters for Climate Week 2017. Photo: UNICEF

The RiSC team has been actively connecting with individuals and organizations that are devoted to climate literacy. In mid-September, the RiSC project team traveled to Boston to present at a NOAA Environmental Literacy Grantee Program workshop held at the Museum of Science. On September 20th, the team attended Climate Week NYC at the United Nations.  On September 25th, Shon and Zimmermann – both Math for America (MfA) Fellows – facilitated a MfA workshop for STEM educators: “Teaching Climate Change and Resilient Design in NYC” where they shared the RiSC curriculum and generated more buzz for the program.

“It’s been a real pleasure to partner with NYC Eco-Schools on this very important project that has both local and national significance for resilience education and action,” said Profesor Brett Branco. “We’re really excited to see NYC teachers and students take an active role in preparing for the challenges of climate change and extreme weather events in NYC.”

Teachers interested in using the RiSC curriculum in their schools should email  Stay connected with the RiSC program on Facebook and Twitter!