Creating an outdoor educational space at Castlemont High School

Fung Fellows teamed up with Civic Design Studio to expand access to green space in for East Oakland students

Fung Fellowship
8 min readJun 12, 2023

At the beginning of the Spring 2023 semester, Civic Design Studio pitched their idea to the 2023 cohort of Fung Fellows; they wanted to create an outdoor educational space for students at Castlemont High School that emphasizes East Oakland as a space of innovation, connection, and diversity. In doing so, they hoped to reshape the disparities in minority and low-income communities' access to green spaces by showing youth that learning from nature can be fostered in any area.

Photo credit: Veronica Roseborough

After ranking which industry partners they wanted to work with, Dakota Margolis [Conservation & Resource Studies], Natalie Martinez [Society & Environment], Jenny Lee [Genetics & Plant Biology], Sasha Kolesnikov [Media Studies], and Salvador Gomez [Society & Environment] teamed up with Tommy Wong and Chris Durazo from Civic Design Studio to bring the proposal to life.

Here, we got to catch up with the fellows from this team to learn more about how they turned the proposal into a deliverable and where they hope to go from here.

What inspired you to choose this specific project?

Natalie: I was really interested in Civic Design Studio’s proposal because I had a bit of a background in creating environmental education curriculum and that was a component that was really sought after for the project. I was also interested to see how I could apply what I had learned prior to a new space because most of my education curriculum was in outdoor spaces, but this is a very specific outdoor space that we had to design for — a space attached to the exterior wall of a building.

Dakota: For me, it was more the interdisciplinary nature of the project that drew me in. A lot of the other projects were way more tech-based like coding an app or designing a website and I don’t have as many technical skills. This one was much more human-centered in the design approach, which is what we really liked. There was also a lot of creative freedom for what we wanted our product deliverable to be so I was really attracted to that as well.

How did the design develop from Civic Design Studio’s initial proposal?

Natalie: When we first met with Civic Design Studio, they spoke about how they wanted to design this 60 by 20 foot area of Castlemont High School and focus on connecting that area of the campus to the one acre farm where it was located on campus, alongside their Fabrication Lab. They wanted the space to be a representation of both the farm and the Fab Lab, connecting to the greater Oakland developments of planting justice, and incorporating an educational aquaponics system. A lot of the original ask was unspecific and broad and we didn’t really know how to tie it together. But Civic Design Studio really encouraged us to take this prompt in whatever way we interpreted it. So, working with them, we ended up creating our whole module design that had an aquaponics system but also educational and artistic components.

How will the outdoor educational space benefit students? What do you ultimately hope to accomplish with this project?

Dakota: That was something that was one of our challenges. We didn’t want to just be college students who came into their school to build random things that won’t be of use to the students. We really wanted to focus on creating a sense of place and community in relation to green space because Castlemont already has a farm, meaning they already have some sort of idea of how important urban agriculture like community gardens can be. We also wanted to find a way for students to connect to nature, to feel like they’re a part of this greater world around them, and to find joy and appreciation in the space.

We want them to be proud of where they’re from and where they are.

How did you attempt to get input from students and others who would be using the space?

Natalie: That actually was one of the main challenges, as we were unable to visit Castlemont high school this semester. Our partners, Tommy and Chris, did really try to get us in to visit but unfortunately, it wasn’t feasible this semester.

However, we were able to attend the Youth Expo a few weeks ago and that connected us to some Castlemont High School students, along with community members and educators from the area. We received a lot of feedback from them on our initial design and Tommy has spoken about getting us more involved in the summer and so hopefully that will be a greater help because it has been a bit difficult.

What kind of feedback did you receive at the expo?

Dakota: Someone suggested that the map be more interactive and incorporate more 3D elements. For example, you could touch a specific location on the map and it can tell you more about the ecological space that you’re in.

Natalie: The other piece of feedback we received was about the aquaponics system. There were a lot of concerns in regards to maintenance because of the vertical nature of the farming system. So, following the Youth Expo, we had to do more extensive research on what it would mean to actually maintain the water tanks needed for the aquaponic systems, that cost and also the more nitty gritty specifics.

For example, our aquaponic system uses two water pumps that need to be connected to a source of electricity. An element we completely forgot was to check if there were outlets outside or if there’s a way to get electricity to that point of campus. Ultimately, we got a lot of good feedback on the smaller stuff that I think left our mind when designing, at least for the aquaponic system.

What did your final deliverables look like and how might they be used moving forward?

Dakota: We have a booklet and a digital model, a mockup of the space. For the model, essentially, we have three individual pieces that go together. Since we have everything against the exterior wall of the Fab Lab, we have a little sign explaining what the space is. And then we have an aquaponics model, which is attached to the wall like a vertical garden.

Next to that is a topographic map of Oakland. We still have to decide how specific and detailed we want the map to be, but we hope to assemble it with a 3D printer or laser. We kind of envisioned that map on the wall, but it could also fold down into a table.

The last component is a cyanotype printing tool, a form of art in which you use a light-sensitive solution that you paint onto a paper. It’s green and then as you expose it to the sun, it turns blue. You place your own pattern — for example, you can take flowers and leaves and put them on top of the paper — and the area around that will turn blue but the pattern will leave a little white impression. It looks really cool and it’s a very easy and accessible way to get engaged with art. So that’s more like a 3D box, with a display area on the outside and the inside opens up to a workspace where you can mix the chemicals together, like a mini dark room.

Natalie: Our booklet contains an overview of what we had designed in the space, as well as the specifics of how to build it and maintain it in the future. This was done with the intention of leaving Castlemont High School students fully fleshed out information about our design in hopes that they’re able to adopt it when they create the final ideation and final iteration for the space.

What work still needs to be done?

Dakota: This is a multi-year project. Civic Design Studio’s idea isn’t just to have a design; their goal is to make this an actual space. So, in the summer, we will hopefully be able to go to the school and engage in conversations with teachers, staff, and students about that.

Natalie: Civic Design Studio is also going to be contracting out think-tank designers and hosting a week-long fully fleshed out ideation and design process for that space to implement the final design. Tommy has invited us to come and speak and also collaborate a bit with the other designers who will be helping create the final designs for the space but after that, they’ll work towards the fundraising aspect to be able to get that off the ground and actually build.

Tommy mentioned that the best part of design is when you actually see the creation you thought up come to life.

He thinks that’s a very important element — especially for people who want to enter design — so he really wants to get us involved with that process, but that is still in the works.

What is the biggest takeaway from working on this project?

Natalie: For me, the biggest takeaway is that even if something is incredibly intimidating, and overwhelming, you’re still able to somehow work through it. I know this is the first time I’ve ever gotten deep into design and created an aquaponics system that has actual drawings with all the specifics. I’ve never done that before in my life, and it was honestly really intimidating. At first, I got really overwhelmed and had to ask myself, “What am I doing? I’ve never done this before. I only write essays!” But once I got over that, I had a lot of fun and honestly, I’m really grateful that I had the opportunity to design something; I hope we are able to see it implemented.

Dakota: We had to learn different design apps and it’s really daunting, but once you do it, you realize you can do it. I think another thing that I took away from this was that there’s always a specific niche area that, if you’re passionate about it, you can find something to do with it. When I was starting the fellowship, I was very worried because all the projects seem to be tech-oriented. They are really cool but I don’t know any code and I can’t create an app. And then we found this interdisciplinary project, which had so much creative freedom, and we all found our specific area we’re passionate about.

How does this contribute to your future plans?

Natalie: I definitely have been introduced to a field that I knew nothing about. I’m a first-generation student so I think navigating this university and buzzwords is really difficult. When I heard the word design, I never even fully understood what that meant. Through the fellowship, I’ve had the opportunity to actually work in that. I realized that it’s a lot less intimidating and more creative than I had thought and I do actually enjoy it. So it definitely is a factor I’ll consider moving forward in regard to my career. But I’m happy I got the chance to even figure out what the heck design is.

Dakota: For me, this project has opened my eyes to things that I’m excited about. At first, I thought it was environmental consulting — and I’m not a huge fan of consulting — but our project specifically was way more community oriented in talking about social good and really connecting with people. That’s what really draws me in: the social aspect of sustainability and environmental science. I really liked the idea of being able to connect people through design that doesn’t necessarily have to do with a new piece of technology, it’s going back to old forms of art and just being in the space and having access to green space. That’s definitely something that I am interested in.

Team members: Dakota Margolis [Conservation & Resource Studies], Natalie Martinez [Society & Environment], Jenny Lee [Genetics & Plant Biology], Sasha Kolesnikov [Media Studies], and Salvador Gomez [Society & Environment]

Industry Partner(s): Civic Design Studio — Tommy Wong

Check out the other Fung Fellow projects at

Edited by Veronica Roseborough.



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