Hands-on Learning & Fun, Build Days at CSE

Hands-on Learning & Fun, Build Days at CSE

The following blog post was written by Krista Martinka, a Spark-Y Education Facilitator, sharing her experience on a build day with one of our school partners.

About the Program:

The Community School of Excellence (CSE) is a K-8 Hmong Language and Culture School with whom we have kicked off our pilot year this school year. Spark-Y is working on a vermicomposting & waste curriculum with a second grade class, as well as an aquaponics curriculum with two fifth grade classes. Our goal is to incorporate as much of the CSE literacy-focused curriculum into our programming as possible, but also to expose the students to hands-on science education. We’ve had a very successful start to the year and we can’t wait to continue this partnership.


Build Day at CSE

It’s almost impossible not to have a good time at a school where the kids are excited to learn. You could say pretty much anything and expect a positive response…


“Do you guys want to learn about dirt?”

“ Yeah!”

“What about fish poop?”


And that’s exactly what we get at the Community School of Excellence. It’s always a great feeling to go into a school and know they want to be there and they want to learn.

What’s better than enjoying yourself as a facilitator? Knowing that the students had just as much fun, maybe more, than you did.

Within the past couple of months we’ve completed three builds with the students at CSE - one in each class that we’ve been working with. Preparing for these builds is a lot of work, and takes a lot of time, but all of that effort is worth it when you see students learning and having fun at the same time. These moments are clear when you see a student use a drill for the first time.  Especially a student who was afraid of a saw, and builds the confidence to use it anyway. It's clear watching their faces light up as they bring their system to life.


There were plenty of examples of this, scattered across each build day.  Such as with a group of second graders. We were building a vermicompostiing system.  A system where waste is broken down by worms to create a very nutrient-rich fertilizer for plants. The pieces had been cut for the system, and ready to be assembled. Some students couldn’t wait to get their hands on a drill, and others were a little cautious. But, the end of the day everyone had used the drill at least once.

“My dad is going to be so proud of me!” was a statement I’d heard from across the room.

Another student exclaimed: “I want to do construction all the time!”



CSE second graders with their vermicompost system.

When working with the fifth graders, we asked what their favorite part of the build day was. We received a few different answers. Some really enjoyed the cutting station and using the saw, others preferred the stations where they got to learn a little bit more about how aquaponics works, but most of the students couldn’t even choose. “Everything!” was the response that we got most often.

I know where these students are coming from because it is really hard to pick your favorite part of a build day. There is so much to choose from!

However, there is one moment during the builds at CSE that really stuck out to me. Working with the fifth graders and explaining the build day to the group, one student asked if the class was going to have to miss recess.  Builds can take a full day, and this one was no different.  I broke the news that they would be missing recess and there were a few frowns around the room.

Trying to keep the spirit light we told them they wouldn’t even want to go to recess because they’d be having so much fun.

So what happened when a group of fellow classmates were in the hallway, putting on jackets for recess?

Not a word, not even a glance at the door from a single student. 

Recess was happening right in the classroom, while students were learning to build, design and use power tools (while facing their fears). Build days are hands-on learning at its best. And just like these group of fifth graders discovered, you have even more fun on a build day than at recess. And the fun lasts all day.


A Greater Opportunity for Learning - Through Failure

A Greater Opportunity for Learning - Through Failure

“I hope they learned something from trouble shooting and watching me struggle.  I hope they appreciate that I didn't give up when things weren't going well and took a mental note to do the same.” - Becca Ward, Ph.D, Spark-Y Education Facilitator

At Spark-Y, we encourage youth to learn through nature.  That’s what our school programs are all about. It’s the “sustainable education,” in our mission statement. Whether it’s an in-school aquaponics program or garden-to-cafeteria program, our goal is for young people to engage in the process of learning. Instead of theorizing what sustainability is or learning science and business from a textbook, our youth are experiencing these subjects through real-world, hands-on learning.

If there’s one things we know from nature, not everything goes according to plan. Well, not our plans, at least.

An important aspect of how we teach our youth is by understanding that our “failures” often become our greatest teacher.  Just as in nature, we learn to adapt and evolve when our current conditions are no longer sustainable. Often a failure sets in motion a greater opportunity for learning.

A great example of this happened last week at Edison High School, where Spark-Y partners to provide a host of elective classes, courses, and seminars. Becca Ward, Ph.D and Sparky Education Facilitator, shares her personal experience:


The goal was lofty.  Set up 21 mini-aquaponic systems in a single high school biology class room.  Enough so that each group of 4 high schoolers could take ownership of a system.  Trying to prepare for every eventuality, we checked and double-checked materials, ran practice trials, and brought extra supplies.  We even had a few extra fish, acknowledging that some wouldn't survive the stressful transition from pet store to high school class room.  The build day came, and unfortunately, we needed a lot more than just a few extra fish.  In the weekend following the build, half of them had passed away.  With the rush of building, grow media had not been washed, and it’s likely some of our fish suffocated from dusty waters.  A few developed fungal infections.  Later that week, we found fish lice (a parasitic crustacean) feasting on the tail of a goldfish.  And as the experiment progressed, more succumbed to high concentrations of ammonia and nitrite as we waited for bacteria to colonize.  

In that first week, I rushed to pet shops, hoping to replace each fish before students noticed. But as the days passed, fish died at rates I couldn't keep up with and for reasons I didn't fully understand myself.  Students asked me what was wrong.  I told them, "I don't know... here's what might be wrong and here's what we could test, but I'm not sure."  


It's been 4 weeks.  We started with 50 fish and now have 10.  I hope these last few survive. They've demonstrated a hardiness worthy of further investigation or perhaps commercial breeding.  The experiment didn't go as I expected.  I dreamt of perfect graphs showing the rise and fall of ammonia and nitrite levels, of students happily feeding their plump and healthy fish.  Instead students learned about failure and confusion- not what I wanted to teach but still valuable skills for their professional and personal development.  I hope they learned something from trouble shooting and watching me struggle.  I hope they appreciate that I didn't give up when things weren't going well and took a mental note to do the same.  And although it's not what I wished for, a small disappointment test emotional capabilities in a way that will hopefully serve these students later in life.  

So, RIP Dumpy.


Student-Driven: Design to Build Day at IAA

Student-Driven: Design to Build Day at IAA

Background: Integrated Arts Academy (IAA) is a Spark-Y school partner with an apprenticeship / school program hybrid. Students in the program spend half time at Spark-Y at our commercial-scale aquaponics system, learning to care system health, and the other half of their time learning STEM-based curriculum with a focus in sustainability. As a part of their education in sustainability, students submitted their own aquaponics system designs and chose one to build on-site at school. Having completed their apprenticeship at Spark-Y, students are now equipped to care for their own aquaponics system, with continued learning in their own classroom.



Youth-designed model and student-built aquaponics frame behind it.

Systems Engineer, Andrew Rescorla, shares his
experience of build day at Integrated Arts Academy (IAA).

Early on, a few students milled around while Wolid and I cut 2x4's with the chop saw. The teacher had announced that the students didn't have to help with the build, but they could if they wanted. None of the students seemed too eager- they had the too-cool-for-school vibe going.

One student, Sean, stopped to watch us. I asked if he wanted to help and he said he would, though he wasn't so sure about making a cut with the chop saw.

"Nah, I'll let you all do that."

He hadn't spent much time around power tools.

After watching a couple of cuts, he gave it a try himself and seemed surprised with how easy it was. After a few minutes, Sean and another student wandered over to Sam, our Operations Director.  The three of them began laying out posts and assembling the wood framing.

When I joined them later, Sean was zipping in screws with an impact driver. 1, 2, 3. 1, 2, 3. He was doing a great job. There was also a newfound confidence, evident as he shared his opinions on wood screws vs. hex bolts and tested the strength of his joints by applying pressure to the cross beams.

Before he left for the afternoon, he stood back, admired what he'd built, and nodded. (I know this sounds corny but it really happened).

At Spark-Y we talk about empowering students to change the world - to create, invent, design, and build sustainable solutions to enormous global problems. But along the way are smaller moments of empowerment - when a student learns that they are capable of building something.

This was a small but cool moment for me to see in my first experience with a student build day. As I had imagined, many of the students were not that interested. But a few were. And those that engaged, they took ownership of the small tasks that were given to them. They learned how to use new tools, and they saw an aquaponics system take shape from a bunch of boards on the floor.

Internship 2017 Re-cap #InternsSoFresh

Internship 2017 Re-cap #InternsSoFresh

Executive Director, Zach Robinson, shares his 2017 Summer Internship Retrospective:

On August 10 the  Annual Spark-Y Summer Internship came to a close with our Open House, attended by 100+ supporters of our 2017 intern class, and our larger Sparky community.

This year we had 60+ applicants, all of whom interviewed for a spot on our 8 intern teams, 32 spots in total. Approximately half were undergrads and half were in high school,  while the majority came from the Twin Cities.  As in previous years, we had participants join Spark-Y from all over the globe!

Of the 8 projects – 4 were “internal” and 4 were “external” projects with community partners:

  • Urban Ag Lab Marketing Team
  • Urban Ag Lab Production Team
  • Schools Squad maintenance Feat. Roosevelt High School + others
  • Schools Squad maintenance Feat. Edison High School + Northeast Minneapolis community
  • Gastro Truck Team
  • Good Acre Maker Teams
  • Holland Neighborhood Improvement Association Community Garden
  • The Lube-Tech Waste Audit Team

HINT: Check out the Annual Internship page for links to intern blogs.



As you can see, the Spark-Y Summer Internship provides a real-world opportunity for high school and college youth to run sustainable entrepreneurial projects. This is a practical, broad, hands-on experience that is missing from so many education institutions right now. Each of the projects had an established budget, deadline, and general direction for its end goals which interns could then further define. Teams were empowered to chart their own course for project execution by creatively determining the specifics of how they would reach their goals. To help them on this journey, the teams were able to utilize specialized training from Spark-Y in the form of mentorship and assistance from experienced staff, board members, consultants, and even insight from outside partners and experts. Finally, each intern individually had a strict set of guidelines that would allow them to achieve the official Spark-Y Sustainability Certification, a professional accommodation that comes with the backing of our organization, a proficiency requirement, and a reference directly from the Executive Director upon request.

There was incredible excitement and energy through the entire internship this year, which lasted over an energy-packed 6 weeks. On Open House night, the general sentiment was: “Can we make this two weeks longer? We do not want this to be over!”


The passion, knowledge, and dedication of these interns really stuck out to me this year. A continued trend that I also noticed, is how a lack of direction and a high degree of autonomy required to execute a Spark-Y internship project  is an intimidating barrier for many youth. I believe this is due to systemic failures in some of society's education institutions, in that memorization, standard testing, and a combination of non results-oriented education outcomes and scarce creative freedom in study does not prepare them for the “real world.” However, this is part of why Spark-Y exists and when that “boiling point” of creative freedom and required results within a professional setting is reached, our youth are accessing incredible innovation and solutions within themselves. The vast majority of our interns were able to meet their project goals AND obtain their certification at the Internship Open House award ceremony. Some of the interns earned special distinctions.. All interns were paid a $750 stipend for their experience over the 6 weeks, based on the value they created for each of our project partners. And how much sweeter a certification is when it is handed out along with their final $500 check?!

> For full list of our 2017 internship graduates and their distinctions: click here.


Being a Spark-Y intern is an meaningful professional experience and resume builder. However, much of the real value, as many of us know to be in true in our lives comes from a day-to-day transformative experience that provides new opportunities, challenges your comfort zone, and maybe even feels a bit scary. On top of putting the interns in the driver’s seat of a project, we encourage them to think about this experience as an analogy for their future, calling on each individual to step into the needed leadership for our economic and environmental future. It’s a lesson that I learned as the first employee of Spark-Y, and one that all of the staff at Spark-Y embodies. (over half of whom were also once interns).

Spark-Y will continue through our internships, our school partnerships and our Urban Agriculture Lab and more, empowering youth with real-world transformative education experiences that provide tangible value to our partners and the greater community. And in so doing, we will help passionate young people create the sustainable future that our world needs.

If you want to join our mission, please sign up for a mailing list and get involved!

-Zach, Executive Director