Natalie Jeremijenko Returns to Pittsburgh for Green & Healthy Schools Academy Partnership

When I was working on the line-up of the second year of GBA’s Inspire Speakers Series, I wanted to find someone who could truly relate the intersections of environment, health, and community in an innovative and beautiful way.  After hearing artist and engineer Natalie Jeremijenko speak twice at the Greenbuild Conference in Toronto and then the Design by Nature Conference at the Omega Institute, I knew that she was the perfect woman to kick off our lecture circuit’s 2013-2014 season.

Natalie with AgBags

And she did just that during her visit to Pittsburgh in November 2013 as she inspired us all to create elegant solutions that have positive impacts on human and environmental health while simultaneously engaging our communities.  After each Inspire Speakers Series event, the speakers spend the following day engaged with our schools in the Green & Healthy Schools Academy’s School Sustainability Culture Program.  During the
Q & A session with the schools, I saw the wonder and enthusiasm her work instilled in the educators and immediately knew the potential for collaboration was immense.

Over the course of several months and many Skype meetings later, Natalie and I agreed that launching a Pittsburgh affiliation of her xDesign Environmental Health Clinic at NYU would be an awesome way to introduce others to her work, bring our communities together around necessary and pressing topics, and create beautiful and playful experiments that help us ask important questions about the interdependent relationships of health and our environment.  Natalie’s innovative spirit really struck a chord with the Environmental Charter School (ECS), and they expressed their eagerness to be the first school to collaborate with this partnership.  Natalie, who has desire to work in a more meaningful way with schools interested in innovation, was ready to partner with the Green & Healthy Schools Academy and ECS to explore the curriculum integration options of her work.

Sewing AgBAgs at ECS

The first collaboration between Natalie’s xDesign Environmental Health Clinic and the
Green & Healthy Schools Academy took place on Thursday and Friday (April 24-25, 2014) at the Environmental Charter School in celebration of their sixth annual Earth Nite.  With the interest of teaching specialists of the school’s innovative Thinking Lab (a multi-disciplinary classroom that challenges students to integrate art, technology, and environmental education through visible and design thinking strategies), Stephanie DeLuca, Patrick Hickey, and Shannon Merenstein, and the input of students, the decision to do an AgBag experiment as the first project of our partnership was decided.  The AgBag is a novel idea for urban farming, which showcases how to create resilient interactions between humans and the environment while having positive community impact and creating educational lessons incorporating science and art.  

While producing edibles and addressing the issue of little to no access to space and/or soil, the AgBag also augments biodiversity and supports pollinators, removes toxins and improves air quality by increasing the leaf area index, minimizes the materials needed in its creation, and is a beautiful example of how to reconcile challenges between humans and the environment with positive impact.  

If I had to measure the success of the experiment solely on the number of smiles from a student, I would say we more than excelled for the launch of a pilot program and project.

Natalie shared this with me: “Redesigning our local urban environments and food systems to improve human health and joy—this is the space race of the 21st Century. I am excited to partner with the Green & Healthy Schools Academy and Environmental Charter School to develop the Environmental Health Clinic’s Farmacy projects and to design curricula for the world’s first Floristas—young people who know that flowers are the most nutrient dense of foods, how to eat them, and how to cross-dress buildings (and bikes and fences) to make more room for flowers. We will work with children to pilot design projects that simultaneously address the pollinator crisis, explore how we can improve air quality, build healthy soil, and produce high nutrition value and delicious edibles. The children are exploring these ideas, possibilities, and new territories…. as our terra-naughts?”

Natalie with fourth gradersLeading up to last week’s events, ECS teachers worked with the fourth-grade students to learn about the purpose of AgBags and designed where they would like to see them placed around the Upper School.  On Thursday evening, parents, students, and teachers joined Natalie in designing and sewing 10 AgBags that would saddle windows of the school and provide opportunities to bridge connections between indoor and outdoor spaces.  A 140 foot long AgBag (the length of about half of an average city block) was also made, and is draped over the back fence of the school and will be blended into the environmental curriculum.  Natalie worked with the fourth-grade students in class on Friday, and continued the project during the evening’s Earth Nite celebration.  Students, parents, teachers, and community members all participated in helping to fill and plant the AgBags.  Watching the curiosity on the students’ faces as they scooped up Soil Moist (an environmentally friendly acrylic polymer that reduces the amount of water needed to maintain vigorous plants and a component of the AgBag) was so satisfying.  Then watching their faces change from curiosity to big-eyed objection when they learned that Soil Moist is used in diapers was just too funny!

Boys with Soil MoistIf I had to measure the success of the experiment solely on the number of smiles from a student who ate a viola flower, the quantity of children’s hands covered in soil, and the number of people working in tandem, I would say we more than excelled for the launch of a pilot program and project.  One of my favorite parts of the evening was watching so many adults come together to get the world’s longest AgBag over the fence while all of the students cheered with excitement.

I hope that you can come and visit the progression of the AgBag on the fence of the ECS Upper School right next to Frick Park.  Stay tuned as we incorporate a story of butterflies and plant various edible flowers and watch them grow.  I am very excited to continue working with the innovative teachers at ECS as we build a strong partnership between the Academy and the xDesign Environmental Health Clinic.  Hopefully this will inspire more engaging projects with schools and communities (maybe AgBags on the Rachel Carson Bridge?)!

Check out all of the great photos from these events here, and learn more about Natalie’s work and her inspiring TED Talk.

Students filling long AgBagsAgBag on Fence



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