Youth Designing for Sustainability

In March of 2012, the the Human Impacts Institute’s (HII) education team and HII Founder Tara DePorte, along with freshmen at the New Design High School in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, began a process of exploring the impact human activities are having on the students’ local community. The goal of the project over the next couple weeks is for each group to explore how their community and the environment are impacted by humans, suggest solutions, and then create targeted awareness and/or action campaigns. As students work with HII, they are working in groups to become “community experts” in local impacts of waste, transportation, energy, and water in NYC.

HII is working with students to understand how their respective topic is impacted by humans and how humans may be impacted by their topics. Students will also brainstorm solutions to related community-based issues and will go out into their community to conduct a survey by questioning members in their community on their impact.

In our first meeting with students, classes brainstormed the four target issues and worked to relate them to their community. It was clear that the students had an intuitive understanding of environmental issues such as energy use through over charging of electronics, water waste through leaving on faucets, congestion and pollution caused by NYC traffic, or litter strewn in the street from mismanagement of waste. Framing the class as an interactive discussion, rather than direct instruction, drew the students into a conversation where their understanding and perspective of local issues were valuable resources. Before they new it, students were articulating the environmental problems that most directly affect their lives.

Within their specific groups, students discussed topics even further, developing comprehensive lists of waste, transportation, water, and energy impacts in their community. The HII staff moved around the room listening in on conversations about how waste attracts rats, how pollution in the water affects marine life, and how alternative modes of transportation–like biking or skateboarding–not only reduce air pollution, but also makes people healthier from exercise. A few of the students began to realize how they were guilty of leaving the water running while brushing their teeth or using their computer, cell phone, and television all at the same time. This personal epiphany led many students to ideas of how to reduce negative impacts on their community. While some groups and students needed gentle encouragement and suggestions by the HII team, the groups certainly had lively and interesting debates about their topics.

After each group shared their “top ten” impacts, the class chose the 3 impacts that they liked best from each group. With those impacts in mind, the cohorts began crafting questions for a community survey. Below are some examples of questions the students will be asking:


· How many hours did you keep your phone on the charger in the past 24 hours?

· How many hours did you use your computer in the past 24 hours?

· What have you done today to conserve energy


· How many minutes did you spend on the train in the last 24 hours?

· How many minutes did you spend walking in the last 24 hours?

· What’s your favorite way of transportation today?


· How do you feel after brushing your teeth after leaving the water running?

· How many times do you flush the toilet today?

· How much time did you spend in the shower today?


· What types of waste did you throw out in the past 24 hours?

· How many pieces of trash did you throw away in the last 24 hours?

· How have you played your part in recycling in the past 24 hours?


Students developed these community survey questions, which they will be using in the Lower East Side, to test their own assumptions about what environmental impacts are most critical to the local community.

Through this program, the HII is challenging students to a high level of self-reflection, group cooperation, and community involvement–all of which are difficult to do for most adults. However, this kind of inquiry based, experiential learning also puts the students at the center of the process and allows them to sort through the immense collection of stimuli in their lives, to focus on an issue that is particularly important to them. Acclaimed Harvard Professor, Pulitzer Prize winner and pioneer environmental biologist E.O. Wilson once stated,“We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.”

It is our hope at the Human Impacts Institute that as the students engage in this project they will gain invaluable insight as to how they can “think critically” about the environmental concerns in their community and become leaders in solving those problems with great conviction, confidence, and wisdom.

By Adam Sheperd, 2012 Human Impacts Institute Environmental Education Intern

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