BY REBECCA ISENHART
On a recent summer afternoon at Van Antwerp Middle School in Niskayuna, the hallways smelled faintly of cleaning products. Empty classrooms had spotless floors, and desks and chairs were stacked in the otherwise-immaculate hall. But in room 110, Michael Petrone’s classroom, there was trash on every surface.
Except it wasn’t trash. It was raw material, ready to be turned into clocks, lamps, and anything else the rising sixth- through eighth-graders could stick together with hot glue.
It was Upcycle Camp, succeeding brilliantly in its first year.
“This is something new,” said Petrone, a technology teacher at Van Antwerp. He led summer enrichment sessions last year, but the concept for this one was untested.
“I wanted to give the kids some freedom,” he said, noting that technology is at its best when art and engineering combine.
In addition, Petrone wanted to inspire the kids to actively involve themselves in environmental conservation. Upcycling is a term that describes creating something new from something old and otherwise useless. It’s a creative act that combines all three imperatives in the slogan “reduce, reuse, recycle.”
“We’re trying to use nothing from the store,” he said. The only exception are the lamp and clock kits students can use, which provide the barest basics for either project.
Around the classroom, students were admiring each other’s completed projects and wrapping up their own. One girl had cut up old foam into flower petals, making a flower clock to mount on a wall. Another had used the foam to create a sculpture whose hand told the time.
Dana Weingarten, who will begin eighth grade in the fall, was busy wrapping fabric scraps around a wire frame she had made. With some hot glue, the scraps formed an eclectic lampshade, to which she then added her name with a metallic permanent marker.
“It’s been fun,” she said. “Well, it’s been hard. It’s like in the middle. It’s just right.”
Dana had never taken any technology classes in school before, although she had made a lamp from a 2-liter bottle during a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) camp the previous summer. She said she enjoyed tackling each challenge that came up as she worked through a project.
“It lets you experiment with your creativity… it lets you be creative without anyone telling you, ‘You have to do this within a time limit,’” she said.
The environmentally-conscious undertone of the activities appealed to her, too.
“I like the fact that we’re taking things and not putting it in a landfill,” she said.
Nearly finished with her lamp, Dana eyed a pile of scrap wood in a corner of the room.
“I was thinking [of] a little coffee table,” she said, already imagining her next project.
Richie Quinn, who will be a freshman at the high school in September, also worked busily on a lamp. His was made of a toy Nerf gun, which, even after being modified to hold a lightbulb, would shoot a foam dart if necessary.
“This was one of my first Nerf guns,” he said, indicating the tweaked plastic toy. “It means something to me, but it was broken.”
Without the enrichment program, Richie said he would’ve eventually thrown the toy in the garbage.
Even before the camp, he said he had given some thought to his own environmental impact. His sister, Katherine Quinn, was in recycling club at the high school before she graduated in 2014 and began attending Cornell University. Her dedication influenced him.
“I always thought that was a really good thing,” he said.
Richie has his sights set on a castoff item in the garage at home for his next project: a broken lawn mower, which he hopes his dad will let him try to turn into a go kart.
“I really like working with the tech stuff,” he said.