Education Activities

Educators! Welcome to Visionmaker NYC!

At the Wildlife Conservation Society, we are committed to helping people everywhere understand nature and their part in conserving species and places for the future. Education is a critical strategy in achieving our mission. We need your help! Thanks for stopping by!

Visionmaker NYC is a place-based platform for understanding how people interact with nature. Using Visionmaker students can investigate ecosystems, lifestyles, climates and how these aspects of the environment interact to influence the water cycle, the carbon cycle, and patterns of biodiversity, population and geography. Students can see how these processes operate in a wild place (Welikia (1609)) and in a modern city (New York City (2014)).

To help school teachers and environmental educators, we have developed a curriculum focused on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, the so-called STEM disciplines. We see these disciplines as critical to the future development of conservation, as well as important to other aspects of the economy.

The modules outlined below contain lesson plans to use alongside Visionmaker NYC, and can be used as a tool to understand carbon, water, population, and biodiversity in an urban context. The lesson plans are geared toward middle and high school students, but can be adapted for any grade level. These lessons have been outlined with New York State Math, Science, and Technology education standards in mind, and reference various standards throughout. If you are not in the New York City area, note that you can apply some of the concepts and lessons below to your region of the world using New York City as a playground for your ideas. Hollywood does - you might as well do so too!

We encourage you to download the materials, share them with your students, and make as much use of them as you can. We would also like to hear from you. If you have particular successes with the lessons you would like to share or have problems you think we should know about, please send an email to Below you will also find a handout that contains an ecosystem key, a diagram showing what each button does, and a brief walkthrough of how to use Visionmaker.

Curriculum Map

The curriculum map outlines our current plans for five modules to use with Visionmaker NYC. Each section contains a brief summary of the activities covered in each module, as well as the New York State Math, Science and Technology standards to which each lesson relates.

How to use Visionmaker handout

Creating a Challenge

Creating and Joining Groups

Module 1: Biodiversity

Module Background

Lesson 1: What is an Ecosystem? Introduction to Biodiversity EPI

In Lesson 1, students will review the concept of ecosystems, including natural and built ecosystem types. Visionmaker NYC allows students to paint natural ecosystems that were common on Manhattan prior to European colonization (i.e. Mannahatta) back in 1609 and see how these ecosystems affected water, carbon, biodiversity and population. Natural ecosystems include estuary, beach, salt marsh, freshwater marsh, hardwood swamp, pond, meadow, shrub land, oak hickory forest, hemlock/ northern hardwood forest. This lesson provides additional detail about pond ecosystems as an example. In contrast, students will consider a built ecosystem: their school, inside or out.

Lesson 2: Inhabitable: Species-Area Relationship and Creating More Hospitable Spaces

In Lesson 2 students will explore the species-area relationship, an important principle in ecology, by using the Visionmaker NYC website. Starting with their block (or City Hall if the school is not located in Manhattan), students will record the number of species found on their block and subsequent blocks as they expand the extent of their visions in both 1609 and 2014. The students will discover non-linear growth in the number of species to area, which it turns out is a characteristic of nature everywhere.

Module 2: Water

Module Background

Lesson 1: The View from Above: Introduction to Water EPI

In Lesson 1, students discover how gravity, precipitation, and ground cover affect ground water storage. Students will begin by exploring how spatial distribution of everyday objects- gum stains, litter, leaves- serve as a proxy for other types of patterns. From mapping these objects, they will infer relationships (i.e. abundance of leaves correlation to distance of trees of litter to density to garbage cans). They will replicate the experiment using water.

Lesson 2: Water, Water Everywhere: Challenges of Water Management in an Urban Environment

Lesson 2 challenges students to learn how water flow is affected by urban landscapes by recording differences in inputs, storage, and outputs in 1609 vs. 2014 for a given area. On Visionmaker NYC, they are introduced to strategies for managing stormwater runoff (i.e. cisterns, planting street trees, bioswales) in the urban environment. They will look at the proportion of impervious surfaces for different ecosystem types and be tasked with reducing stormwater runoff by 25% with different teams given different parameters to accomplish their challenges.

Module 3: Carbon

Module Background

Lesson 1: What's Your Carbon Number: Introduction to Carbon EPI

Lesson 1 will begin to build students' awareness of the CO2 output of human lifestyle and behavior choices. Students will rank everyday activities by their carbon emissions, will utilize Visionmaker to understand the collective carbon output of differing lifestyles, and will use real-world modeling to realize the scale of the impact our daily choices have on carbon emissions.

Lesson 2: How Low Can You Go? Reducing Carbon Output Challenge

In this lesson, students will build on their understanding from lesson 1 by exploring the ramifications and economics of CO2 output. Students will use mathematical equations and proportions to calculate social cost of carbon emissions. Using Visionmaker, students will engage in exploration of ways to decrease human carbon emissions, and will use data to create arguments in a class debate based on differing strategies for greenhouse gas reduction.

Module 4: Population

Module Background

Lesson 1: 8.5 Million and Counting: Introduction to Population EPI

In Lesson 1, students will participate in activities to understand and contextualize human population and population density. They will study real world data from 6 US cities to uncover the impacts of changing population density. Students will explore the spread of urbanization and the resulting pros and cons by examining satellite imagery, collecting data using Visionmaker, and creating their own visions. Collaboration, use of technology, and problem-solving will enable students to think critically about the process of urbanization and its potential impacts.

Lesson 2: Waste Not, Want Not: Reducing Carbon by Reducing Population or Their Needs

Lesson 2 will challenge students to consider not only the number of people living in cities and around the world, but also how those people choose to live, and how lifestyle and population are inherently intertwined. Students will do research to create photo essays, use Visionmaker to analyze data comparing the environmental impacts of differing lifestyles, explore the relationship between population and resource consumption, and ultimately be encouraged to examine their own lifestyle choices.

Module 5: Envisioning the Future

Module Background

Lesson 1: Adapting to the Future: Looking at Designs for a Different Climate

Lesson 1 will engage students in understanding climate change, what it is and the consequences that are likely to impact NYC. Students will analyze global temperature data to build awareness of changing trends over the last 112 years, study topographic/elevation maps to examine the impact of climate change and rising sea levels on NYC, and use Visionmaker to investigate the role of urban planning in building coastal resiliency to the effects of climate change.

Lesson 2: Designing for the Future: Climate Change Challenge

In lesson 2, students will be introduced to concepts in environmental justice. They will expand their understanding of climate change by exploring how differing New York City neighborhoods are impacted disproportionately by the effects of climate change. Students will utilize census data and maps to examine the discrepancies in flooding seen in high vs. low income neighborhoods. They will then use Visionmaker to design neighborhoods for low-income residents that are more sustainable and just, and will share their visions, and their voices, with their community.