A Day in the Life at the Columbia Heights After School Aquaponics Program

A Day in the Life at the Columbia Heights After School Aquaponics Program

The following blog post was written by Nicholas Lockert, Spark-Y Sustainability Educator, on STEM education at our school program partner Northeast Middle School.

The after school program at Columbia Heights High School is one that is entirely different than any other program I personally have been a part of since working with Spark-Y. This program, named “Aquaponics” by the students who participate in the program, takes place once a week for two hours and has around 12-15 participants every week. Some of these students have been apart of this program since the ‘17-’18 and ‘18-’19 school years and have returned this year with just as much excitement and enthusiasm as the years before. Other students who are new to the program have joined due to word of mouth from those who participated before. What draws these students to join such a program like ours? The aquaponics and hands-on learning always stand out as potential answers to this question and I believe there is a large amount of validity with those answers. However, I think the real answer to this question is the autonomy that we give the students in this program.

When I walk into the classroom where we house our aquaponics after school program, I’m greeted by our kids enjoying their afternoon snack and playing video games together on a variety of devices. A large majority of our students are a tight-knit group who have a love for learning and playing video games with their friends. Once both snacks and games are finished, we get started. We have an introductory lesson or game to warm things up before we go over our plan for the day, what projects we want to complete, and what maintenance needs to be done on our aquaponics system. Following the introduction for the day, the students break themselves up into different groups to take on the tasks they need to complete.


Day to day tasks that the students complete are varied. They include inspecting the aquaponic system to make sure everything is running properly, testing the water within the system to ensure our fish aren’t going to get sick and the plants are getting the optimal amount of nutrients they need, feeding the fish, and checking on our vermicompost system to see if our worms need anymore food. Many times the students will switch up what they work on each week so they can get a feel for what kind of work goes into each task. Allowing them to divvy up the tasks amongst themselves is important in my eyes because they enjoy the freedom to choose what job they do each week instead of being assigned a job. They will be more likely to complete that task in a more timely fashion and the quality of the job will most likely be higher too. Better quality work being put towards the system tasks allows for higher quality produce coming from our system.

After completion of the normal weekly tasks, we will usually reconvene to discuss or work on our next long-term project. In the past, these projects included building the classroom’s aquaponic system and building a new door for the garden shed. This year, we have a few projects in mind.

  1. Our current ongoing project is to grow produce for an afterschool cooking class that takes place at CHHS on Tuesdays. This class is facilitated by Wes Nugteren, who also takes care of the school garden. We have the ability to provide him with fresh produce throughout the entire school year with our aquaponic system and we want to take full advantage of this opportunity. The students selected all of the produce themselves and plan to pitch their product to Wes to work on their entrepreneurial skills.

  2. Wes has tasked our group with building a set of squirrel-proof bird feeders for the garden. The garden is very luscious and provides a wide variety of produce throughout the year. However, we all know about the pests that tend to wreak havoc on gardens each year. Insects love to ruin our hard work in our gardens by destroying our beautiful plants. Wes has come up with a potential solution to this problem for the CHHS garden. Building bird feeders to attract specific bird species that are insectivores (species that eat insects as their main source of food) can decrease the pest population in our garden. Fewer pests means happier plants.

  3. Staying with the garden theme, one of the raised herb beds in the garden is rotting and falling apart. Our students get the opportunity to design and construct a new raised bed to replace the damaged one.

  4. After having a meeting with Spark-Y’s lead sustainability educator, Sarah Pilato, and talking to her about the CHHS program, she came up with an ingenious idea. Our students love their video games and building computers as stated earlier. Why not task them with creating their own video game based upon aquaponics? Whether its teaching players how aquaponics works, encouraging players to get the highest score by growing the most produce, or strategising on how to defeat enemy bugs to keep the aquaponic kingdom safe, the students will get to develop some form of game that can be used by many other kids to learn about aquaponics in a fun, interactive way.


One thing you might notice about all of these projects is that there is a large area where the students can be creative and run with them however they want. Student autonomy is one of the main goals we have with this program. We give them ideas for projects they can take on, then they do the rest. To help keep the students engaged and ultimately feel more empowered, we let them call (most of) the shots. I asked the students if it was important to them to be autonomous in this program and these are some of the responses I received:

Ifrah: “Yes! It allows us to demonstrate leadership skills at a younger age, which can help us down the road. We can also explore a new passion on our own terms.”

George: “Yes, because its more engaging and interactive than a normal classroom experience.”

Simon: “I think it is important. It is good to be on our own and work as a team. It teaches us and prepares us for the future to finish our work whether we are in college or working a job.”

Hector: “Yes. Leaders arise within the program.” “We are more engaged and bring out our own ideas. We also have the chance to learn from our mistakes.”

Before we know it, it is 5:30pm and we are done for the day. We clean up the classroom, say our goodbyes, and head home already thinking about what we get to work on next week.

The Importance of STEM Education at Northeast Middle School

The Importance of STEM Education at Northeast Middle School

The following blog post was written by Patrice Banks, Spark-Y Sustainability Educator, on STEM education at our school program partner Northeast Middle School.

Framework of STEM


Science, technology, engineering and mathematics(STEM) in early education plays a key role in the sustained growth and stability of our youth’s creativity. STEM education creates critical thinkers, increases science literacy, and enables our next generation of innovators.

Most professions of the future will require a basic understanding of math and science. However, despite these compelling facts, mathematics and science scores on average among U.S. students are lagging behind other developing countries. Located in Minneapolis, Northeast Middle School(NEMS) provides core (reading, writing, math, science, social studies) instruction to underserved school aged students in grades 6-8. NEMS also ranks high amongst other schools as one of the most diverse public middle schools in Hennepin County. From personal and professional experience, there is not enough diversity in STEM career fields. Furthermore, once multiple career fields achieve diversity then we see more innovation and can serve the world's problems. This is why core-subject areas in STEM is important as well as the effectiveness of STEM education teachers.

Northeast Middle School is helping to create the next generation of innovators and problem-solvers by delivering STEM experiences to children. Spark-Y institutes such science curriculum through hands-on learning that is geared towards student leadership and engagement, critical thinking, teamwork, and troubleshooting their problems. Susan Thyen is the lead life science teacher at NEMS exposing students daily to STEM and giving them opportunities to explore STEM-related concepts. With Spark-Y, Susan accelerates students’ learning each Friday as they explore sustainable food systems and understanding of how they impact the world and their community by acknowledging the importance of a sustainable environment.

Few teachers can engage students in a diverse inner city school and effectively teach them science concepts. However, teachers like Susan Thyen are changing that. Ms. Thyen is taking a more personable approach to teaching science in the classroom - and it’s leaving students more excited to understand the discipline and develop into scientists.

Using Minnesota Science Standards, the Department of Education supports educators with the implementation and best practices of academic standards. For Friday programming with Spark-Y in Northeast Middle School (NEMS), we promote STEM through the use of project-based learning and encouraging youth to critically think and troubleshoot their problems.

Preliminary research on successful STEM schools indicates that cultivating partnerships with higher education, nonprofits, museums, and industries is important for engaging students in STEM learning through internships, mentorships, and interdisciplinary project-based learning (Means, 2008; National Research Council, 2011)

The mission at NEMS is to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect. To accomplish this, NEMS provides all students with a supportive and nurturing environment where the quality of teaching and learning demonstrates that. All students attending NEMS each day are encouraged to develop themselves academically and be transparent, taking accountability for their work.

This year, Spark-Y continues a cooperative relationship with NEMS, working with seventh graders in their Life Sciences class, exploring and reconnecting sustainable food systems to their natural world. Most of the students demonstrate active participation in their daily classes, and in particularly enjoy their science class.


Big Picture for STEM

STEM is a curriculum based on the idea of educating students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics that integrates all four disciplines into a cohesive learning models based on real-world applications. In the classroom, STEM curriculum is implemented in science, reading/language arts, computer science and history classes.

Classes in Northeast Middle School’s STEM program serve more than 500 students in grades 6-8 and most students rotate through at least one STEM class where they can emphasize the application of knowledge to real-life situations. As an educator in the classroom, I recognize that students, no matter their background, question everything and always try to make sense of new information. Naturally, when students have unanswered questions, they are driven to find answers and spark curiosity with what they discover. When this becomes a regular part of classroom practice, students will regularly ask meaningful questions to support their learning across all areas. By exposing students to STEM and giving them opportunities to explore the field in a fun and engaging way, we are also providing lifelong benefits to them beyond the classroom such as creativity, improved problem-solving skills, attentiveness, collaboration and teamwork. As educators, we need to ensure that every student has a chance to reap these benefits.

Distinctive Syllabus

In Minnesota middle schools, 7th grade Life/Physical Science students are driven through an inquiry-based course. They study six major units of science including natural systems, physical properties of matter, and the structure and function of living systems. Investigations in these units provide meaningful opportunities for students, while connecting them to other STEM principles including engineering, math, and art.

Worth mentioning are the classroom outcomes that are associated with most STEM curriculum and International Baccalaureate (IB) teaching strategies. Similar to STEM disciplines, IB education creates responsible, socially conscious individuals who use their cross-cultural education to promote connections between themselves and the greater world. Both STEM- and IB- education share similar curriculum that encourages students to:

  1. Be inquirers: Develop your natural curiosity and ask questions when you are stuck and when you need to be challenged.

  2. Take risks: Approach unfamiliar situations and uncertainty with courage and not being afraid to make mistakes

  3. Be open-minded: Understand and appreciate your own personal perspectives and that of others. Be willing to grow from the experience.

  4. Become Communicative: Explain your science thinking and express ideas and information in a variety of modes of communication.

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Looking Ahead

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is an increasing demand for expertise in the sciences which is projected to result in employment growth for those in this field. This means it is even more important for youth in our programs to experience STEM-based education and increase youth exposure to science. Teachers like Susan Thyen, have put in many hours to create, develop, and improve the academic experiences in her classroom. Support for these types of teachers and programs empower students to become scientifically-cultured citizens.

As student’s awareness of STEM fields and the academic requirements of such fields continue, programs in school can help youth see that STEM is more than a class to finish. Moreover, youth explorations of STEM and related careers begin at middle school, particularly for underrepresented populations. Perhaps Ms. Thyen put it best: “STEM provides my students with outlets to be creative, work as a team, and think critically to solve real world problems. STEM helps build skills that my students will need when they are out of school so they can be contributing members of society. I love teaching STEM because it’s meaningful and it’s fun!”

How Hands-On Curriculums Cater to Different Learning Styles

How Hands-On Curriculums Cater to Different Learning Styles

The following blog post was contributed by established education blogger, Alyssa Abel.


In the evolving world of education and youth instruction, it’s becoming more important than ever to incorporate newer, better learning — to keep youth engaged, promote personalized learning and contribute to a more successful education system.

When it comes to offering an engaging experience across subjects and school levels, hands-on education systems are what we need to re-engage students in a time too tied with technology. Whether it’s through classroom-based models, hands-on labs or out-of-school experiences, experiential education programs like those offered at Spark-Y do more than enable youth empowerment — they bridge the gap and offer value for every learning style.

Here’s how hands-on learning is effective and revolutionary for all learners:

1. Hands-On Learning Engages Tactile Learners

When it comes to traditional classroom instruction or lecture-based educational programming, tactile learners are at a disadvantage. They’re not engaged by listening — they’re engaged by doing.

Children with a kinesthetic learning style quickly and permanently learn what they do in and out of the classroom, which is why schools and youth programming alike should employ more hands-on learning methods over classic instruction or technology-based models.

2. Hands-On Learning Offers Cultural Exposure

In a traditional classroom environment, students sit side by side, encouraged to engage with a static lecture or presentation — but not necessarily encouraged to engage with each other. Classrooms and youth-centered programs comprise students of so many different backgrounds, cultures and experiences. In this evolving social age, exposing children to diversity is more important than ever, but standard classroom methods may not be the most conducive to real exposure.

From a young age, cultural exchanges and educational experiences are essential to youth development, but not every family is able to offer their children the enriching experience of cultural exchange environments. In hands-on environments like Spark-Y’s in-school programs, internships and urban agriculture labs, children are able to interact and work directly with each other, exposing them to a variety of backgrounds — no matter what they’re studying.

While cultural exposure isn’t the focal point of a hands-on curriculum, it’s an inevitable benefit. Through these tactile educational experiences, youth participants gain a deeper understanding of the world — and of each other.


Spark-Y program youth visit the Urban Ag Lab at Casket Arts headquarters to tour the microgreens growing tower and DIY Bio Lab.

3. Hands-On Activities Provide Experiential Learning Opportunities

Many educators treat experiential learning like a side dish instead of the main course. But experiential learning gets all students engaged because it focuses on building knowledge through what students do and observe. Traditional lectures engage only a small number of students, while experiential learning demands youth take ownership of their educational experience.

At Spark-Y, for example, educators like Cecelia Watkins facilitate unique hands-on learning experiences that offer students the physical context and personal investment to drive learning concepts home. Through unique “Action Lab” stations during Spark-Y’s annual harvest celebrations, students from partner schools are offered the unique opportunity to put their agricultural education into direct practice.

After spending months sustainably cultivating and growing food through hands-on aquaponics systems, students are assigned relevant, real-world tasks — like making guacamole with their own supply of cilantro or harvesting kale for kale chips. When the main course is experiential education, students are poised to taste more success.

As Watkins asserts, “independent, experiential learning” is the goal — and it makes all the difference. “Having a purpose and some autonomy about how to achieve it deeply engages students of all ability levels and age ranges,” she says. The result? Indelible learning outcomes.

4. Hands-On Curriculums Encourage Cognitive Development and Collaboration

When students engage in activities that require movement, talking and listening, it activates different brain regions, boosting cognitive development. Even for auditory learners, listening to a lecture only stimulates one or two brain areas.

Additionally, hands-on activities enable students to collaborate directly with their peers. Children learn best when they discuss what they've learned with others — the act of verbalizing their ideas helps cement them. Furthermore, students who don't understand an instructor's explanation of the material sometimes grasp it when they can work with other students to see the results.

5. Educators Have More Time to Individualize Instruction

Some students struggle with written or verbal language applications. Others wrestle with inductive and deductive reasoning. Regardless of the individual need, hands-on activities allow school and program leaders time to personalize instruction.

Teachers can create separate learning stations for different activities around their classroom, and assign students to small groups to complete these activities. In such an environment, teachers adopt a facilitator role, circulating the room and offering personalized advice. Students can spend additional time at stations designed to bolster skills they struggle with.

Inquiry Zone at Crossroads Elementary

Inquiry Zone at Crossroads Elementary

For example, a Spark-Y partner program at Crossroads Elementary offers students in hands-on engineering classes the opportunity to use their talents and applications to come up with real-life solutions for classroom challenges. In the “Inquiry Zone,” instructors encourage third- and fourth-graders to focus on brainstorming their own ideas in stations — for both tactile challenges like building floating boats with pennies and theoretical solutions like improving the classroom.

By encouraging all students to “feel comfortable facing problems and thinking of creative solutions,” says Spark-Y educator Gabrielle Anderson, this program provides each individual with “a unique space to play and experiment without being told their answer is right or wrong.”

6. Students Of All Learning Styles Benefit From Hands-On Challenges

Some students learn best when they work independently. For students with a solitary learning style, hands-on activities provide them time to immerse themselves in studies they feel passionate about. Because of the variety of ways in which students learn, instructors would do well to include hands-on activities that engage all the senses.

Spark-Y’s hands-on focus on sustainability, agriculture and entrepreneurship offers students of all learning styles the opportunity to thrive — with elements of collaboration, individual responsibility and full sensory immersion in each unique program.

Want to Improve Engagement and Classroom Management? Incorporate More Hands-On Activities

When it comes to challenging kids’ creativity, exposing them to enriching opportunities and expanding their capabilities, hands-on learning is the key. And when educators choose to integrate hands-on experiences and curriculums into their classrooms, they can do more than engage students of all learning styles — they can encourage and empower all students to exceed their potential.


About the Author

Alyssa Abel is an established education blogger with a special interest in new learning methodologies. Read more of her work for students and educators of all levels on Syllabusy.

2019 Internship Positions

2019 Internship Positions

Sustainable Systems Intern & Education Facilitator Intern

September 9 Application Deadline for both positions.

Sustainable Systems Intern:

Time: Flexible schedule

Location: Minneapolis, MN

Power statement:
The one who gets it done. The tinkerer and communicator. Exhibiting the fortitude to troubleshoot and maintain Spark-Y’s sustainable systems and the bridge between the Operations and Education branches of the organization.

Job Description:
Spark-Y has implemented a variety of systems throughout the Twin Cities to spotlight sustainable agriculture and youth empowerment. These student-led systems, such as aquaponics or greenhouses, double as a teaching tool for Spark-Y’s education programs and a local, sustainable source of food. The objective of the Systems Excellence intern will be to help maintain the ongoing success of our partner systems.

Essential Job Functions:
Sustainable System Support & Data Collection - 75%

Help to maintain and manage the sustainable systems at one or more school and community locations, ensuring the space is not only clean and safe for regular student involvement but also yielding produce
Assist and support Spark-Y operations team as needed
Visit high-need programs as needed in-person to remedy larger issues

Data Management - 15%

Input data collected from sustainable systems
Analyze data to aid in troubleshooting

Trainings, Meetings, Professional development - 10%

Attend the Fall 2019 Internship Kickoff
Meet regularly with your staff supervisor
Attend training sessions

Reliable mode of transportation
Experience working with sustainable systems

Desired knowledge areas:

  • Aquaponics

  • Gardening / permaculture

  • Urban / indoor farming

  • Mechanical troubleshooting

  • Biology and life sciences

Desired Experience/Education:
Currently pursuing a degree


To apply, send resume to Carley Rice: carley.r@spark-y.org

Education Facilitator Intern:

Time: Flexible schedule

Location: Minneapolis, MN

Power statement:
The enthusiastic educator. The helping hand. Working with Spark-Y educators to empower youth and deliver innovative, hands-on curriculum.

Job Description:
Spark-Y engages students in schools across the Twin Cities through hands-on education in sustainability and entrepreneurship. Staff Sustainability Educators conduct programs for K-12 students using teaching tools such as aquaponics, vermicomposting, and school gardens. Lessons also include a focus on youth leadership development. The Education Facilitator Intern will support the Spark-Y educator in the classroom. They will work with youth, help deliver programming and lead activities.

Essential Job Functions:
Program support - 90%

Assist the Spark-Y educator and classroom teacher to deliver hands-on programming
Help prepare and deliver lessons
Engage students of all backgrounds with positivity and patience 
Bring an enthusiasm for learning
Be familiar with sustainable practices and environmental stewardship

Trainings, meetings, and professional development - 10%

Attend the Fall 2019 Internship Kickoff
Meet with staff supervisor regularly to discuss progress
Attend professional development training sessions

Reliable mode of transportation
Experience working with youth

Desired knowledge areas:

  • Project-based learning

  • General STEM

  • Behavior management

Desired Experience/Education:

  • Currently pursuing a degree

  • Experience working with youth


To apply, send resume to Carley Rice: carley.r@spark-y.org