NEWARK, NJ — Armani Otero, a fifth grade student at Joseph H. Brensinger Elementary School in Jersey City, lit up as he spoke about building two robots that he and other students created to observe changes in their school’s garden.

“My favorite part of the whole thing was building the robots,” he said. “We had to collaborate. We didn’t have instructions, so we had to look it up online. It was fun.”

These robots are part of a project titled “A Garden of Biodiversity, Biodiversity: How will we change Jersey City’s Living Habits?”

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These Jersey City kids were among more than 120 students from several New Jersey schools presented and explained their urban sustainability projects aimed at making their schools greener at the Honeywell Institute for Ecosystems Education (HIEE) Student Forum held at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark on Thursday.

“What we need are leaders such as you and you are the leaders,” said Randy Jones, board chair of New Jersey Audubon, which organizes thias unique, annual event in partnership with Honeywell. “You are very special young people. You are the ones that stepped and said `I want to be counted. I want to make a difference'.”

The purpose of the  event is to bring together the HIEE participating schools to allow the students and teachers to share and learn from each other. Teachers received a $500 mini-grant by Honeywell to implement their classroom sustainability projects.

“The HIEE Student Forum highlights students’ passion to make more livable, sustainable, and enjoyable communities,” said Evan Van Hook, Honeywell corporate vice president of health, safety environment, product stewardship and sustainability. “New Jersey Audubon’s expertise in experiential, hands-on learning is key to the success of these student achievements. Honeywell’s hope is that all this passion and inspiration leads to lifelong learning, career opportunities, and innovation that could impact our world."

“The student projects we are seeing from these Hudson and Bergen county schools are the direct result of immersing teachers in hands-on learning and urban ecology and sustainability,” added Jones, of New Jersey Audubon. "It is so rewarding to see the next generation of scientists, engineers and ecologists making a difference in their own community.”   

On Thursday, each student received a medal for participation. After the student presentations everyone crowded around the student displays, talked with each other and learned about each other's projects.

Students at North Bergen High School focused on sustainable pathways of growing healthy food in classrooms and the school’s greenhouse, with it to be used in the school cafeteria and to help encourage healthy eating habits.

“Our mission is to educate and not just grow these vegetables. We want to educate our students and staff members on the importance of growing,” said teacher Yaniris Maldonado.

Vimbisai Basvi, 15, a freshman at North Bergen High School, said the food audit and survey conducted at her school taught her plenty.

“For me it was more personal. It wasn’t just doing it for the sake of doing it. It was about learning the importance of food,” said Basvi. “It taught me a lot. I learned to appreciate the people who are working to make our food and to know all the hard work that goes into it.”

Ernie Recendiz, 16, another student at North Bergen High School, said learning to grow plants and studying aquaponics proved to be something “easy” - just as long as you put in the time to research.

Recendiz said the experience over the past year in this program helped improve his speaking skills. He now has pride that the garden project could really make a difference for his community.

“It could help our school and later on it could help our community better,” said Recendiz. “Perhaps this can all be shared with our elementary schools, so those kids can begin to think about the importance of eco-schools."

Sebastion Bedoya, 14, a student at North Bergen High School, said he is excited to share what he learned with other students.

“Early in the year we went to a farm where we learned about crops and how to plant them,” said Bedoya. “We’re hoping to be able to teach the younger students to grow crops. I would never have thought about all this stuff, if it wasn't for this program.

Students in the fifth and seventh grades at Joseph H. Brensinger School collaborated to design and create a schoolyard garden to increase plant and animal biodiversity. In addition, the fifth graders built and operated robots to observe changes happening in the garden – noting interactions between the land, plants, and wildlife. The students recorded footage with these robots that they operated through their cell phones, and then presented their findings at the forum. 

Students at Lincoln Middle School in Kearny danced to the words of a poem that accompanied a presentation that encouraged other students to assemble a movable garden and plant flowers. 

Other projects included: 

  • James Ferris High School (Jersey City) – Little Changes in Our Lifestyle Can Make a Huge Difference
  • Lincoln School (Kearny) – Birds, Butterflies, & Bees, Oh My…Plastic, Garbage, and Erosion, Let’s Try! 
  • Franklin L. Williams (Jersey City) – Helping Prevent Soil Erosionin the Schoolyard 
  • McNair Academic High School (Jersey City) – Stepping into the Green @ McNair
  • Henry Snyder High School (Jersey City) – Plastic Bottle Greenhouse
  • Innovation High School (Jersey City) – Innovation High Goes Green

While more than 120 students participated in Thursday's forum, hundreds more received hands-on urban sustainability lessons during the school year that led to the development of projects that ranged from building gardens out of recycled materials over unforgiving concrete to incentivizing energy reduction by lobbying administrators to give days off to teachers with the most energy efficient classrooms. 

Each school is working toward their Eco-Schools USA bronze award showing an application of sustainability principles that “green” the school building and grounds, impact their curriculum, and enhance student experiences, Honeywell officials said.