April Showers Bring… Snow Plowers?

April Showers Bring… Snow Plowers?

The following blog post was written by Sarah Pilato, 
Spark-Y Education Facilitator.

Students in Edison High School’s EASYpro (Edible Agricultural School Yard Professionals) class are facing quite an interesting challenge this spring.  How do they establish and maintain a successful garden when it seems like this winter will never end?

This has so far been a very exciting and busy year for EASYpro students.  The 2017-18 school year marks Edison High School’s pilot year as part of Minneapolis Public School’s Garden to Cafeteria program.  Being involved in this program means that any food that is grown at Edison can be sold to the school’s cafeteria and served to students during lunch.  Edison has several different agricultural components on their campus that are serving a huge purpose in this program. The Edison farm consists of a campus garden, a greenhouse, and an aquaponics system that the students care for throughout the year.


This year’s class dove right into the program with an incredible amount of enthusiasm.  After completing their two week food safety training, the class participated in their first official harvest!  

With the help of last year’s spring 2017 class and Spark-Y summer interns planting and maintaining the garden, there was plenty to be harvested in the fall.  This first harvest included a basket full of delicious cherry tomatoes, fresh basil and chives, and some pumpkins.

The initiative taken by the students was a meaningful experience. Students harvested, delivered, and even washed produce with the staff - chatting about new potential recipes they could make from their harvest. After this first experience, it was impossible to keep students out of the garden! (Not that we would want to.)


After being cooped up inside for several months during the bitter Minnesota winter, everyone has been getting quite antsy to be outside in the garden again.  The class was just gearing up to prepare the garden space by cleaning out the beds, tilling the soil, and building some new trellises, but wouldn’t you know it, winter decided to make another comeback.

A  surprise snow storm that hit over this past weekend left some parts of Minneapolis covered in as much as 15 inches of snow (yikes!).  All that snow threw a bit of a wrench in the garden planning process. The class quickly learned from this experience that nature doesn’t always stick to the schedule you want it to.

Ever the resilient bunch, EASYpro students are not letting this obstacle slow them down.  A few students still got out there this last week to problem solve and make decisions about moving forward.  Some resourceful thinkers on the team decided to utilize extra space in the aquaponics system to continue growing seedlings that can be transplanted once the snow clears.  This kind of adaptability is what is making Edison High School truly successful in this endeavor!

Thanks to their hard work, the aquaponics system is growing more than it ever has.  The class even hopes to make a harvest of spinach and chard from this system that they can deliver to the cafeteria very soon!

Let’s hope that this was the LAST of winter for this year so we can all start moving forward with garden season!

 Anthony working on the aquaponics system

Anthony working on the aquaponics system

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Swiss Chard

Beautiful & healthy growing in our aquaponics system.

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Edison's Aquaponics System

Just after construction and not yet planted.

The Real Scientists of Crossroads Elementary

The Real Scientists of Crossroads Elementary

The following blog post was written by Cecelia Watkins, 
Spark-Y Education Facilitator.

When I learned I’d be working with 3-5th graders at Crossroads Elementary—a year-round, public STEM school—I was pumped. As the Crossroads Action Educator, I get to teach seven classes a week in the school’s science classroom and Inquiry Zone, where I develop and facilitate hands-on sustainability projects.

I remember on my first day one student asked: “Are you a scientist?” I smiled and said without thinking “Yes, we’re all scientists here!” The kid tilted his head sideways and raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Okay sure, but are you a real scientist?”

I have to admit, the words struck a note of dread inside me. Here I was, trying to earn the respect of these elementary kids, but was I really a scientist? I didn’t have a degree in the hard sciences. I haven’t worked in a research facility since one summer in college. I wasn’t even particularly knowledgeable about aquaponics!



How hard can it be?

I decided I would do whatever it took to prove myself to these students by making the aquaponics system at Crossroads explode with happy fish and healthy plants. I rolled up my sleeves, planted seeds, and tossed the tilapia their pellets. But then I noticed my pea plants were freckled with white rot, my beans were turning yellow, and the tilapia became so aggressive they started killing each other. Disaster! The reality is that for all the shiny promise of aquaponics, it actually takes a fair bit of expertise—or experimentation—to create a productive system.



Dominance and aggression!


Sad broccoli

Luckily, the Crossroads students have been more than willing to learn alongside me. The 5th graders are actually in the midst of conducting experiments to determine how different variables affect the health of an aquaponics system. In pairs and groups, these students constructed their own 10 gallon aquaponics tanks and chose which independent variable they wanted to adjust. One group decided to only fill their tank half full, another chose to use adult plants instead of starts, and still another decided to double the oxygen input. Other students are experimenting with number and type of fish, number and type of plants, and type of grow media. After weeks of patient waiting and diligent water testing while the nitrification cycle got established, we at last added fish and plants this past week. Stay tuned for their results!


The 3rd and 4th graders have started their own aquaponics germination experiment recently. As we began learning about plants, we asked what a seed needs to grow. Students were quick to answer: sun, soil, and water! Some all-stars even thought to add air and space to the list. I decided to put their assumptions to a test. Each class was divided into three seeding groups. One group’s seeds would get everything: they’d plant in soil, be placed in a grow bed (giving them access to water) and they’d get plenty of light exposure. The next group would be exactly the same except the containers would be covered and kept in the dark. The last group would be totally different: instead of planting in soil, they’d plant their seeds in hydroton, on a damp piece of paper towel. After cleaning up from our flurry of planting activity, we all made predictions: would the seeds without light and soil be able to sprout?


3rd grade experiment

Seeds in soil, seeds in hydroton, and seeds in the dark.

I honestly wasn’t entirely sure myself what would happen. We at Spark-Y have a tendency to say we’re “laying the tracks as the train is approaching,” and I think what we usually mean is that we’re constantly pushing our growing edge, constantly adapting, and constantly evolving. As much as it can be stressful to be responsible for the hundreds of little lives that make up an aquaponics system, it’s also exhilarating to be learning alongside the students. When I peeked into the darkened planters I felt a thrill to see the little plants reaching out. My excitement doubled when I imagined how fun it would be to reveal the results to the students the next day.

As the students have been busy conducting their experiments, I’ve been doing several of my own—and leaning heavily on the expertise of many other Spark-Y staff. I’ve rearranged the tilapia, added some needed nutrients using banana peels, iron chelate and worm tea, and adjusted the system pH so that the plants can actually absorb those nutrients. As dismaying as it can be to lose a plant or a fish, I’ve also found system care to be immensely rewarding. The other day I was just about to pull up the pea plants with white rot when I discovered they had actually grown peas! Just as Jeff Goldblum so wisely said, “Life finds a way.”


Spark-Y intern, Zak

With a fresh lettuce harvest!

In the past few months, I’ve come back to the question several times: what makes a ‘real’ scientist? For the time being, I’ve decided a real scientist is anyone with a genuine willingness to explore the world through observation, experimentation, and a strong sense of curiosity. As long as we’re willing to fail and observe, learn and try again, we really are all scientists.


Captains Program Reinvigorates Northeast Middle School

Captains Program Reinvigorates Northeast Middle School

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

Spark-Y is in its second year of programming at Northeast Middle School (NEMS), working weekly with seven classes of 7th graders.  Last year, students built an aquaponics system in their greenhouse and this year, students added two more systems to that space, maximizing their growing space with the goal of selling fresh, local produce to their cafeteria!  


NEMS Captains Set to Takeover Systems

This fall semester, we had an amazing time building the two new aquaponic systems at NEMS.  When we asked students what they enjoyed most about Spark-Y visits, many of them immediately referenced working with the power tools.  And I have to agree with them, there’s something special about building something and you just feel more powerful with a tool in your hand.  

Now that we have so much wonderful growing space, our priority is to help students get their systems thriving.  Unfortunately, it’s been a challenge.  While there are a handful of plants growing, 80% of their system isn’t producing.  With 175 students getting limited time with the system every other week, system care has been inconsistent at best.  To address this problem, we decided to start a Spark-Y captain program.  The captain program is a way for a few students to become more involved in the maintenance and care of the system, which will improve the consistency of care and hopefully improve the production of the system.  

To select captains, we helped students fill out applications as well as reflect on their strengths and how they can uniquely contribute to improving the system.  Ever the pessimist, I expected to get 5-10 exceptional applications out of the 175 we would receive.  Wonderfully, I was totally blown away by the enthusiasm and quality of the applications (#neverunderestimateyouth).  In fact, there were so many great applications that we decided to expand the program and develop more projects around business planning and system advertising.  I also have to mention that it was really uplifting to get solid applications from students who I had no idea were interested in the system.  

A few of my favorite excerpts from the applications: 

I would want to become captain because I want to change what my community looks like and to make my community healthy and clean.  If I become captain I would also want to help our communities trees and animals and help our nature to be healthy again.
I would be good at taking care of the fish because I love animals I like taking care of them and I think it would be cool to raise some fish for each classroom to have. I think that we could have a variety of plants to harvest and sell to the cafeteria.
I want to be a captain because I feel like I could find ways to improve our project. I also would like to be a captain to help in other ways such as making a website or being resourceful and looking at other ways to sell our products or planning it.
**I Really want to be a captin!**

Now that we’ve selected captains, during Spark-Y workshops, they will spend most of the hour working on the system, which has been split into seven sections so each group has a specific growing space that they are responsible for.  Captains will decide what to plant, record what and when they planted, and predict when they should germinate.  This way they can begin to quantify the success of the system and hopefully, identify what is necessary for successful plant growth.  Once the system is thriving, these students will take the lead on harvesting and selling produce to their cafeteria.  

Having spent a lot of time worrying about the health of the system, I was so reinvigorated by the enthusiasm in these applications and am excited for these students to take charge of their systems!  Also, if you’re wondering, for the students who are not captains, we’ve been working with them to develop projects that they are passionate about and will improve the school. Thus far, we have students who will be designing gardens, improving recycling in their school, and mentoring young students at Pillsbury Elementary!  

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Tours, Microgreens, and More: A Look at Spark-Y's Urban Ag Lab

Tours, Microgreens, and More: A Look at Spark-Y's Urban Ag Lab

Spark-Y’s Urban Agriculture Lab (UAL), offers a blooming paradise in a cold Minnesota winter! Youth operate our aquaponic production facility, raising microgreens for sale through the Gentleman Forager, facilitating regular tours, and organizing events such as our spring plant sale. Since the beginning of 2018 alone, more than 180 students and over 20 community members have toured Spark-Y’s UAL. Read on to learn more about the UAL, and the activities that our awesome interns, volunteers, youth apprentices, and citizen scientists are participating in.

The Latest from the Urban Agriculture Lab


Spark-Y’s fresh, local, youth-grown microgreens are being used in restaurants across the Twin Cities, through our partnership with the Gentleman Forager. These microgreens will also soon be offered for sale at the Gentleman Forager stand in the new Keg and Case marketplace opening spring, 2018. Revenue earned through this partnership allows youth in Spark-Y’s school programs to be employed in the UAL, where they can apply the skills and knowledge learned in their school program to a real-world setting. Kelly, our first youth apprentice, was a student at Roosevelt High School. He participated in the Roosevelt Urban Farm Squad for two years, and in Spark-Y’s summer internship for two years. He was hired on as staff in August, 2017, and is now helping produce microgreens for the Gentleman Forager partnership.


Baby Blue Tilapia were bred as a special project by our intern Nicholas Jacob. They were born on November 3rd, 2017. These fry will reach a mature size within about nine months. Tilapia are the ideal species to raise with students in our school programs for their hearty nature, and ability to reach maturity quickly. We like to celebrate the creation of a food system with the students in our school programs, by participating in a fish fry at the end of each year. These Blue Tilapia fry are currently being raised by the youth apprentices and interns operating our UAL. We intend to sell them to local restaurants and individual consumers right around August, 2018 when they reach maturity. Our tilapia make extra tasty (and sustainable!) fish tacos incase you were wondering.


Spark-Y’s mission of sustainability education and empowerment stretches beyond the youth in our programs. Every-other Thursday evening from 6 to 7pm we welcome the public to join us on a tour of the UAL. Tours only cost $10, and will go through each of the sustainable systems we utilize in the classroom as drivers of STEM education. You can sign up for a tour on Spark-Y’s Shop page.

Side note: You can also stop by before the tour on Thursdays from 5-6pm to purchase fresh, youth-grown microgreens!

This summer, Spark-Y will also be partnering with the Hennepin County Library to offer a series of STEM focused workshops. Keep an eye on our Facebook page, or sign up for our newsletter to learn more.


What’s Ahead for the Urban Agriculture Lab:

Are you getting antsy for spring? We sure are! Get your pants from Spark-Y at our 2nd annual Spring Plant Sale taking place May 5th, 2018. All your veggies, flowers, herbs, and even native plants will be available! We will also be offering mushroom log demonstrations, UAL tours, and activities for the kiddos throughout the day. Sign up for our newsletter at Spark-Y.org to receive a pre-order form for the 2018 plant sale.


Looking to get involved?

You can support Spark-Y and our UAL by participating in any of the following events:

  • Come on a tour - Offered every-other Thursday 6-7pm.
  • Purchase microgreens @ Spark-Y, 5-6pm on Thursdays.
  • Come to our plant sale on May 5th.
  • Purchase a mushroom log, T-shirt, fanny pack, SCOBY, or vermicompost bin at Spark-Y.org, or on Thursdays 5-6pm.
  • Sign up for our newsletter.
  • Donate
  • Volunteer
  • Like & follow us on Facebook