Workshops at Gaynor McCown

The collaboration with Gaynor McCown Expeditionary High School was inspired by the Replay Festival, the once-a-year festival that was proposed by Carolina Corseuil, Alice Hue Lu, and Kate Fisher during the Fall 2016 Transdisciplinary Design “Sound the Mound” studio. John and Andrew pursued this collaboration in order to strengthen the project’s connection with stakeholders in Staten Island around its core themes. John and Andrew were joined by Emma Eriksson (planning and facilitation) and Oliver Padilla (planning and audio-visual documentation), both of whom were second-year graduate students in the Transdisciplinary Department. Collaborators at Gaynor McCown Expeditionary High School included Kevi Langis (Curriculum Coordinator) and Heather Seltzberg (Living Environments’ Coordinator and Teacher)

Gaynor McCown already had an existing connection with Freshkills Park, who helped facilitate the extended partnership with the New School. They were interested in developing experiential learning tools for their students, focussing on the topic of sustainability which was already a central part of their Living Environments’ science curriculum. Partnering with them created the opportunity to leverage the compelling presence of Freshkills Park (within walking distance of the school) in ways that might nudge students rethink their relationships with local ecosystems.

The collaboration with Gaynor McCown and Freshkills aims to collectively engage all partners in a co-creation process that involves designing and testing experiential learning activities that bridge the siloed curriculum in today’s school system—science, art, and humanities. The curriculum that results from this collaboration will be revised and implemented again in Fall 2018, after which time it will be free for teachers to use at Freshkills Park or to adapt for classrooms throughout the nation. The ultimate goal is for the outputs and outcomes of the Sound the Mound curriculum to be iterated upon, and for workshop templates to be used in ways that build student awareness about sustainability and offer a model of change for other landfills across the world.

Parsons worked with Gaynor McCown’s 9th grade advisory groups (called Crews) and drew links to the curriculum of their Living Environments course. The 9th grade Crews have a theme every year that helps frame their work, this year their theme was JUSTIFY YOURSELF. We lead workshops for seven Crews (approximately 120 students) on six occasions from October to December 2017. During each session, we gave short lectures, lead activities, and in some sessions handed out homework. We discussed the practical applications of the design process and different aspects of sustainability and environment.

Workshop One

The first workshop introduced the students to the design process and, as part of the discovery phase of that process, we explored common materials that New Yorkers both use and throw away. We learned how long these materials take to decompose, how many are used each year in America, and finally how students could begin to think about how such materials could be reused. The students were given an item of commonly disposed of trash (e.g., pens, plastic cups, water bottles, plastic bags, straws) and were asked to invent new uses for the product they had been assigned. The groups then selected 1 idea and built upon it, ultimately presenting their innovation to the class.

Their homework for that week was to fill out a “Trash Journal” using a sheet we had created. The journal provided them with space to detail four objects they threw out that week as a way of increasing their awareness about their habits of disposing trash.

Workshop Two

The second workshop built on the discovery phase in the design process and encouraged students to understand how much waste they dispose of. We did this using the students’ Trash Journal. In groups, the students then labelled each piece of trash according to its materials (e.g,  plastic, metal, paper, glass, etc) and noted how long they used each item (e.g., 1-5 minutes, 1 week, 1 month, 1 year, etc). Finally the students were exposed to the different ways that designers present information to make it more understandable and to impact audiences. This included creating a group infographic using the notes of the trash they had disposed of in the past week.

For homework, and in anticipation of their trip to trip to Freshkills Park, we asked students to observe the environment in their home through their senses on a form we provided called “Record Your Senses.”

Workshop Three

We built off of the homework from the previous week by focusing on how to explore our senses, and how the senses affect our experience of a place, object, or moment in time. We showed instances of designs that were built in response to how people experience things with their senses (e.g., pink prison walls designed to have a calming effect on inmates, a new office space with varied types of seating designed to promote creativity, etc). Finally, we asked the students to think about the classroom they were in and to reflect on their sensory experience of the room, which included an eyes-closed silent reflection. The students noted down their impression of how sight, sound, smell, touch and temperature played a role in their experience of the room, and then suggested changes that could be made to create a more conducive working environment. The session concluded with a reflection on how the exercise could be used to better understand Freshkills Park on their upcoming trip and imagine the complex history of the place and its importance with regards to environmental sustainability.

Freshkills Park Field Trip

After the third workshop, students visited Freshkills Park armed with some of the things they had learned during the previous three weeks: the design process, personal consumption and disposal of trash, information visualization, lifecycle of materials, multisensory design, among others. For their trip, we asked them to continue reflecting about the sensory experience of the park from the time it was marshland through its transformation from landfill to park. One of the main reasons we asked them to consider these details is that because of the way Freshkills is engineered over the former trash dump nothing can be installed on the mounds. This makes it challenging to imagine attractions that might draw visitors to the park. We asked them to think about their senses as they imagined designs that might attract visitors and to record that on a form we provided. Learn more through the handout.

Workshops Four and Five

The final two workshops of the series encouraged the students to reflect on everything that they had learned, both about the design process as well as about consumer culture, the impact of disposable items on the environment, and Freshkills Park. The students were then asked to create a storyboard and ultimately a 40 second viral video in groups of 3 or 4 on one the the three themes below:

  • How would you describe the changes at Freshkills—from marshland to landfill to park—to someone you know?
  • How would you convince your friends to throw away less trash?
  • Focus on one item that people often throw way. How would you convince people to reuse or re-purpose it?

Reflections and Planning for Future Workshops in Fall 2018

Once the workshop series had concluded, the project partners (The New School, Gaynor McCown, and Freshkills Park) came together to discuss successes as well as steps that could be taken to improve the curriculum going forward. Some suggestions included:

  • Situating the Curriculum: instead of offering these workshops during Crews sessions, we discussed offering these as part of the Living Environments class, taught by Heather Seltzberg. This would solve several of the challenges we faced during the series of workshop. It would:
    • remove the disruption caused by interjecting a workshop into the routines that students are used to during their Crews sessions
    • create instructional continuity by reducing the number of workshop facilitators from three to one
    • allow for the workshop content to incorporate more scientific curriculum since it will be offered by the science instructor. This would allow the experiential elements of the workshops to be grounded in scientific theory.
    • develop a succinct overarching theme, like “reduce, reuse, recycle,” “zero by 2030,” or something the students come up with during the workshops
  • Concentrate the Timeframe: instead of offering the workshops once a week over the course of 7 weeks, we agreed to offer the workshop in one week in order focus the students on this topic. Prior to this one-week sprint, students would visit Freshkills Park for a science-focused sustainability tour. The schedule of workshops could be:
    • Day 1: What is Design—explaining the design process and asking the students to imagine how to reuse trash
    • Day 2: Biodegrading Trash—explaining the science behind biodegrading trash using science and facts on world usage
    • Day 3: Visualizing Trash—visualizing how we use trash (using the trash journal for homework) and the in class visualization
    • Day 4: Telling Story about Freshkills—learning best ways to tell stories using storyboarding
    • Day 5: Recording Videos—following three questions/prompts
  • Start the workshops but foreshadowing what they will be producing as a final product from the beginning of the workshops: videos. Video can then speak to things that they found interesting or questions that they had during the semester. In addition, we agreed to incentivize the students by promising to post the best videos to the school’s website, or promote them in other public ways.
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