Columbia Heights Launch and Smooth 80’s Jams

Columbia Heights Launch and Smooth 80’s Jams

The following blog post was written by Wolid Ahmed, Education Facilitator / Americorps:

About the program:


Columbia Heights High School (CHHS) are one of the newer Sparky programs in the 2017-2018 school year. Our big-picture goal is to empower high school students through student-led design, planning, and build of an aquaponics system.

CHHS is an after-school program, allowing our curriculum to be more flexible. The students we serve in this program already have a little background in agriculture with their own school farm on campus.

We've had a great start to the program school year and we're looking forward to keeping it going.


Spark-Y days at CHHS:

Coming in as an education facilitator at Spark-Y was a little daunting. There is a lot riding on us doing well. We are expected to help lead these young minds to be empowered, live sustainably, and then pass that forward to others. So I was really nervous about it all, but I didn't need to be nervous at all. From the start, these students were amped about aquaponics - and in particular fish!!!

Two students were already well-versed in fish and fish care, and had already began debating on the types of fish the aquaponics system should have. CHHS students were ready-to-go, energized to learn as much as possible.

To begin, we started by outlining our expectations and goals for the program in the coming year, in the spirit of collaborative conversation. We felt that was necessary to empower these young adults to have a say in what they want to learn about.

Since this is a once-a-week program for three hours, we provide as much information to the students as possible on program days. To kick-off the education, we presented information on nitrogen cycles. Then, slowly building up to learning about structural design by exploring with popsicle sticks. Students were really good at meeting expectations, and with a little encouragement, were willing to stretch their thinking outside-the-box.


My fellow facilitator, Becca, and I had them practice systems design. We created design drivers to help them think more outside-the-lines. We put time limits on designs, as they stretched into areas of new thinking, individually and in groups.

The whole class was really chill and wanted to be there doing the projects. Becca was the MC and played her favorite hits from the 80's and 90's.

The design date for a full-scale aquaponics system needed to be pushed back, so we put together hands-on projects to jumpstart the group. This resulted in a mini aquaponics system assembly project, with student-designed lighting systems to provide light for the plants in the system. The students were the ones running the ship. They worked together in assembling and then designing and pitching their design to the other students in the class and voting on who's was more structurally sound. Some of the students were really detailed in there design of the light fixture. Everyone was getting in on the cutting of the PVC and assembly of it. Students that didn't like to talk much were engaged and were really enjoying the process.


CHHS System Design and Build

A few weeks later, students would get to design a larger system for their school. The youth had a lot of say in the process, including mocking up designs for our Operations Director, Sam Menzies. Sam would mash a lot of their ideas together to create a sound structure conceptualized by students.

Once we had the design finalized with the students, it was off to the build.

We've had two builds with the students so far and both we very productive.  Everyone was excited about the build.

We set up the stations for cutting and drilling the lumber. Becca was the designated MC again, playing “Africa” by TOTO and Sam air played every instrument, with me lip-syncing “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas to myself.

The builds were fun and upbeat.  We didn't have a shortage of work to do and every student was eager to start the tasks needed.

Thus far, we have finished about 1/3 of the build. So that means the build will likely head into the second semester, with more students to potentially sign up for the program. I think the students really enjoyed being there and had a blast doing activities you normally wouldn’t be doing in a school setting: ideating, designing, building, and learning… and all while enjoying those smooth 80’s jams.

Elementary Youth Launch and Grow

Elementary Youth Launch and Grow

The following blog post was written by Becca Ward, 
Spark-Y Education Facilitator

Program Overview: 
Fall 2017 marked the start of the Spark-Y / Pillsbury Elementary partnership and the completion of the Spark-Y pathway in Northeast Minneapolis.  In partnering with Pillsbury, Spark-Y now brings hands-on learning experiences to all levels of Northeast public schools.  Unlike most first year programs, Pillsbury is a condensed program, with only six workshops and a build day throughout the academic year.  Our primary goal at Pillsbury is to help forty 4th graders build their first aquaponic system, facilitating an authentic learning experience around the life sciences, urban farming, and sustainability.

Pillsbury Program Launch:
As this is our inaugural year at Pillsbury, our priority was to build an aquaponic system with our two 4th grade classes.  However, unlike most first year programs, we only have six workshops and a build day, meaning there was no time to waste and every minute of programming has to count.  So after just one workshop to introduce the idea of aquaponics, six Spark-Y staff, two teachers, and forty 4th graders built an aquaponics system.

The kiddos had an amazing time.  Some of them were excited to tell us and their classmates how much they already knew about power tools, barely waiting to be called on to share their knowledge.  Others were very unsure whether they had the guts to use the saw or drill or even walk up the few short steps of the ladder, citing a fear of heights.  But by the end of the day, even the most tentative students were reaching to the top of the system, drill in hand, to put the final screws in place.  Exciting transformations happened that day.  A pile of lumber became an aquaponics system and forty 10 year olds became carpenters.

With the system in place, we turned our attention to launching and caring for the plants and fish.  Students planted cuttings of longevity spinach and voted on which seeds to plant.  They painted leaves and fish on their system, proving to be efficient if not perfectionistic artists.  Regardless, the color brought life to the system and the message that it was student built and cared for.  We brought in a guest goldfish for them to observe.  He was an instant success, primarily because of his digestive efficiency.  Students were shocked by the enormity of his excrement.  Cassidy, a Spark-Y intern who was facilitating the station, said the students at first insisted that it could not possibly be poo because it was TOO BIG.  They suggested names and have since checked in with us to make sure he was still doing well (he is).       


With three very successful visits under our belts, we went into the fourth workshop with the goal of teaching the students about the all-important nitrogen cycle and water testing.  It’s a big goal to teach 10 year olds about a process that includes microscopic bacteria and chemicals they’ve never heard of before.  The day fell flat.  At the end of the two classes, it was unclear if the students had absorbed anything and we hadn’t even covered the maintenance schedule we had prepared.  Wolid and I lamented the loss of a day, deciding that we had best repeat the lesson to make sure they understood the nitrogen cycle and water testing.

So Wolid repeated a lesson on the nitrogen cycle, while Abby, another Spark-Y intern, helped students make observations on their new tilapia and growing seedlings and I walked students through water testing again.  The day went amazing.  Students with home aquariums asked if they should be testing their water at home or putting plants in with their fish.  Another student’s eyes widened at the chemicals and beamed when I described them as little chemists.  And best of all, over the hubbub of twenty chattering students, I heard Wolid ask a group of students what they remembered about the nitrogen cycle.  To both our surprise and delight, students shouted out answers. AMMONIA!  BACTERIA!  How on earth had they remembered that?  Wolid thought they hadn’t learned a thing two weeks ago.  And yet, here they were, recalling the major players of a complex cycle.  We definitely had underestimated these students.  

Now knowing that the students can make thoughtful observations on their plants and fish, name the components of the nitrogen cycle, and water test, we can confidently pass off the care of the system.  With their enthusiasm and intelligence, we cannot wait to see how their system will thrive over the next few months and are looking forward to seeing them again next semester!


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.