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 Crossroads Elementary Engineers Leave Nothing to Waste

Crossroads Elementary Engineers Leave Nothing to Waste

The following blog post was written by Gabrielle Anderson, Spark-Y Sustainability Educator,
on our Spark-Y school program with Crossroads Elementary Inquiry Zone.

Elementary schoolers have the best ideas. This spring at Crossroads Elementary, the ideas have been freely flowing. We always encourage creativity and discovery in the Inquiry Zone, Spark-Y’s realm of enlightenment at this school (a.k.a. where we carry out our programming); one of the expectations posted on the wall is that I won’t always give them the answer. So these 3-5 graders are accustomed to challenges that stretch their young brains. Lately, they have been putting those warmed up muscles to the test with some problem-solving challenges.

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Third and fourth graders are currently focusing on engineering, using trash as a material. At three different stations, students are presented with a pile of waste materials and challenged to build a boat that can stay afloat when piled with pennies, a bridge that can withstand the pressure of a stack of books, or a car that can speed down a ramp and across the room. I have seen boats built out of jar lids, aluminum foil, and straws that can hold 70 pennies! There have been cardboard bridges that can hold 30 books! And the cars - well, the cars could use some improvement. Wheels are hard. These kinds of challenges inspire the kids to experiment, test, and rebuild.

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Another batch of great ideas came about recently when I was teaching a lesson about the Engineering Design Process. I presented them with a problem: Because of the shape of the Inquiry Zone, I cannot see all the students at the same time. This makes it difficult for me to know when students need help. What could we build to solve this problem? A few ideas were thrown around. We could install buttons that illuminate lights to show that someone in that area needs help. We could have more teachers in the I-Zone to help (if only!). We could knock down the walls. After a vote, students decided that the best plan was to install a bell system, so if a student needed help, they could pull a string that would ring a bell and alert the teacher of their need. Brilliant! When we concluded the lesson and moved on, one student asked, “Wait, we aren’t actually going to do it?” Maybe now we will.

Crossroads Ambassadors have also been brainstorming. The Ambassadors are given the responsibility of helping make Crossroads more sustainable, spreading the word about the I-Zone, and generally being stewards of their school community. This spring, they plan to build a structure that protects the garden hose. The hose cannot stay outside all of the time for fear that it will get stolen or broken, but that makes watering the garden in the summer a huge hassle, which in turn has prevented the gardens from really flourishing in the past. The plan is to build a durable structure with a lock so that water access is simple and efficient.

Ambassadors drew up designs, with all types of security features and fun details. There are plans for 24 hour surveillance, alarms, and guards to protect the precious garden hose. Of course, these plans will be dialed back and grounded in the realities of budget and time. But other ideas were totally doable: making the structure look like a little house, or painting signs that say a ghost lives there to scare away potential burglars.

Though all of the Ambassadors’ hose house dreams may not come true, working within limitations is an important part of the design process. Besides, it is fantastic that their original designs were lofty, without considering the restraints of money, time, or available resources. I would rather they dream big and scale back than fail to dream at all.

The same can be said about all of the challenges Crossroads kids face in the Inquiry Zone and beyond. If they feel comfortable facing problems and thinking of creative solutions, they will have an easier time facing adversity and making change throughout the rest of their lives. The Inquiry Zone and Spark-Y’s programming there give students a unique space to play and experiment without being told their answer is right or wrong. There are no grades or tests. This environment fosters that freedom to dream big and be creative, which I truly believe is building up the leaders and change-makers of tomorrow.

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Sparking Curiosity at Roosevelt

Sparking Curiosity at Roosevelt

The following blog post was written by Matthew Kolasny, Sustainability Educator AmeriCorps.

Matthew Kolasny at Roosevelt’s indoor aquaponics system.

Matthew Kolasny at Roosevelt’s indoor aquaponics system.

At Roosevelt High School in South Minneapolis, I have the honor of participating in and helping lead a daily high school course that exposes students to principles of sustainability, entrepreneurship, and environmental justice through urban farming. Our class is different from most I’ve known before. Our students, neither bound to a single classroom nor reducible to their performance on a final exam, help care for the sustainable systems Roosevelt Urban Farm (RUF) has in place. These include several aquaponics systems and outdoor growing spaces, equipped with raised beds and a greenhouse, where we produce food for our school’s cafeteria, not to mention a couple vermicomposting towers which help produce fertilizer for our farm. Our class encourages students to participate and interact with one another, to follow their natural curiosities, and to take part in the design and direction of the course. RUF broadens students' views of what “class” can be and encourages them to consider learning as a living, interactive process.

Roosevelt youth harvesting produce from their raised beds.

Roosevelt youth harvesting produce from their raised beds.

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In a daily high school program, it doesn't take all that long to list the environmental benefits of aquaponics or recite the 5Es of sustainability, counting them off one by one on our fingers. Eventually, we've got to find more to talk about, and while a considerable amount of our time is spent tending to our farm, we have also studied plant and seed biology, native and indigenous farming practices and values, and labor issues amongst farm and food service workers. In my role, I try to continuously emphasize that sustainability is not measured only by how many gallons of water we save or how many pounds of waste we eliminate. Sustainability is a way of viewing and behaving in the world which acknowledges limitations and asks us how we can thrive in recognition of them. Because of this, I encourage the students I work with to consider all of what we do and study in a context of sustainability, guiding our thoughts and reactions to what we learn. We have found that there are opportunities to think and act sustainably all around us.

Aquaponics has proven to be a fascinating learning tool through which we have considered these ideas. As winter drags onwards and the icicles outside our greenhouse windows seem only to grow longer, students are drawn to the warm space lush with green plants and the rippling sound of water moving in peace. Our aquaponics space is entirely separate from our everyday classroom, not even on the same floor of the building. In a typical week, we only visit the space once or twice. After learning about the fundamental biological processes at hand, however, and learning that aquaponic structures can be scaled to almost any size the designer is willing to work toward, our students’ question was simple:

“Why don’t we have a system in our classroom?”

After that, we built two.

Utilizing some of Spark-Y’s designs and equipment and with fish tanks we were able to acquire from the school district we built two, ten-gallon aquaponic systems which have now been cycled and planted with Roosevelt heirloom cilantro, seeds recovered and saved by last year’s students and started by this year’s.

When students have the opportunity to test their skills and interests in areas many of them have previously not ventured into, they ask questions and make observations in ways that have previously not occurred to them. Why else should a bunch of teenagers from the city care enough to learn about farming or aquaponics? To me, the answer is not necessarily about creating the next generation of sustainable farmers. Instead, I believe it’s about helping students activate their natural capacities, their curiosities to problem-solve and innovate. The moments in which I myself feel most empowered are those when I am able to connect with students somehow, when I'm able to get them to smile and take interest in what we are learning, and when they treat me as though it is worth it to them to have me and our class in their lives. They want to know what we can do to help them today before they care about how we are here to save the world tomorrow. My work with these students has shown me that once we are able to show this kind of commitment to them, they are more likely to extend that commitment to others and to the world around them.

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Breaking Barriers, Creating Change

Breaking Barriers, Creating Change

The following blog post was written by Caitlin Barnhart, Urban Farm Manager and Education Facilitator; with Carley Rice, Lead Education Facilitator, on the launch of Spark-Y’s On-The-Job Training Program.

What does empowerment mean?
To Spark-Y’s On-The-Job Training students, it means breaking down social and economic barriers.

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Through a partnership with Summit Academy OIC, and the Skills and Opportunities for Achievement & Responsibility (SOAR) Workforce, Spark-Y was able to offer a brand new program this past semester: A 6-week immersive job training course in which students learn professional development skills and have the opportunity to become a ServSafe Certified Food Manager - an industry-recognized certification that allows them to compete in the workforce at a level above their peers.

This program is vastly different from our traditional programming. It's the first time that completing our course comes with a professional, industry-recognized accreditation. It’s also the first time we’ve limited participation to those who are 18-24 years of age and who have a history with the legal system.

A major goal of this program is to overcome barriers that have held back historically disadvantaged populations and to help close the opportunity gap. We are doing this by:

  • Sending job opportunities to students, teaching youth how to find jobs they are passionate about.

  • Working with students to develop interviewing skills.

  • Helping students create resumes and apply for jobs.

  • Creating a support system that they can rely on.

One story I would like to highlight is that of King Heirs. King is a student at the Minnesota Internship Center (MNIC), a high school for youth that are seeking additional support to help them graduate. MNIC is one of our earlier school partners and the site of our first-ever, in-school program back in 2009. King learned of our On-The-Job Training program through the MNIC and immediately applied. He was the only student of 8 enrolled who showed up for every single class, constantly going above-and-beyond to achieve the goals that he set for himself. Homework was not a part of this training program, but that didn’t stop King from regularly asking us to send him links to practice exams or if he could take home next week’s assignments to finish over the weekend. When it came down to it, King was the only student who took responsibility for getting himself downtown to the exam center at 8am on a Thursday morning. He sat through a mandatory 8 hour training session, and then passed his ServSafe exam with flying colors! During one of the course days we were discussing passion and how it relates to career choice. King expressed his desire to become a millionaire one day and then he said something that will always stick with me: “Someday, when I’m a millionaire, I’m going to donate a bunch of money to Spark-Y.” Sometimes having an impact on one student’s life is truly a success story.

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This program has a huge potential for students like King who are willing to stick it out through to the end, though it certainly wasn’t all daisies all the time. Carley and I quickly learned that a couple of white girls from the burbs weren’t going to make much of an impression on these students. So what did we do? We brought in speakers that had more similarly aligned backgrounds, and could really connect with the students about their experiences. Shout out to Quinten Osgood, Community Outreach Coordinator for Twin Cities RISE!, and to Bob Blake, owner of Solar Bear and organizer for MN Interfaith Power and Light. These two speakers provided relatable stories and encouragement to the students, while adding to the network of professionals and mentors available to them.

This first On-The-Job Training program was most certainly a learning experience that we now have the knowledge to improve. In the future, we plan to integrate this program more closely with our others by: encouraging participation from current or previous Spark-Y students; offering positions in our Summer Internship following the training course; and working with Summit Academy to enroll students into college courses post training program. Whatever the future holds for these students, Spark-Y has their back. And as an organization, we will continue to provide pathways that breakdown socio-economic barriers and create positive change for our youth.

Winter 2018 Program Updates: Tending our Garden

Winter 2018 Program Updates: Tending our Garden

The following blog post was written by Education Director, Cecelia Watkins, on current school programming partnerships and what’s ahead for the second half of the school year:

The 5th graders wait patiently in a circle, eager anticipation painted across their faces. They’ve sat through the introductions and the safety instructions, and they’re ready to get their hands on something. Gabrielle, a Spark-Y Sustainability Educator, numbers them off into five groups and encourages them to hold their group number on their fingers so they won’t forget.

“Group 1 will be with Cece, measuring our lumber. Group 2 will be with Carley, using the chop saw to cut our lumber. Group 3 will be with Andrew to use drills and assemble our system and Group 4 will be with me learning about seeds and aquaponics. Group 5 will be with Sam, also assembling the system. We’ll switch stations every 15 minutes. Okay everyone, go to your station leader!” The circle scatters into five groups, and the room is suddenly transformed from an ordinary classroom into a Spark-Y building zone. Eight hours later, the classroom is equipped with a fully constructed aquaponics system.

The incredible thing about the Community School of Excellence is that this didn’t happen in only one of their 5th grade classrooms: it happened in all of them. All five 5th grade classrooms at CSE now have their own youth-built aquaponics system. Over the course of the school year, this classroom will cycle water through their system, grow food, and connect their work to the broader community. This 3 phase model is where Spark-Y shines: Design/Build, Grow, Connect. There’s no doubt that these CSE students will remember their time with Spark-Y for years to come. In 2018-19, we’re scheduled to build the following brand new, permanent systems with youth:

  • 5 aquaponics systems

  • 10 raised bed gardens

  • 2 vermicomposting systems

  • 1 hoop house

  • 1 grow tent

  • 1 myco-remediation system (spore bank and fruiting chambers)

In the first three months of the school year, we’ve already built 3 aquaponics systems, 7 raised bed gardens, and the grow tent. If we continue cranking out systems at this pace, we could easily double the number of sustainable systems we’ve planned to build this year.

Except for one thing: this year, we don’t want to focus on building as many new systems as possible. Building something new is exciting and honestly, it’s relatively easy to generate funding and resources to support new builds. But what happens to those systems the following year? How about the year after that? And what about the next batch of CSE 5th graders?

The other week I found myself asking a group of students at Prairie View Elementary School if they knew what the word “sustainable” meant. These are especially bright kiddos, and several raised their hands to reply: “It means you can keep it going,” one said. Exactly. What if we were to measure our success not by how many new systems we build each year, but instead by how many we nurture to the point of thriving?

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Prairie View students learn about the system they’re inheriting and plant new seeds.

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This is our third year at Prairie View Elementary, and they are one of several school programs that we call “Systems Partners.” These are schools where we’ve decided to prioritize the health of existing sustainable systems, and empower the regular school day teachers to integrate the systems into their day to day curriculum. The reality is that it doesn’t make sense for Spark-Y staff to be in every classroom every day or every week. Another reality is that Spark-Y has been cranking out sustainable systems for years now: a lot of our school partners already have aquaponics systems, vermicomposting bins, and school gardens. What message can we send about sustainability if we don’t prioritize taking care of the incredible gifts we’ve inherited?

In 2018-19, we’re planning to empower 1,400+ youth in regularly occurring programs and another 500 in one-time events and workshops. The vast majority of these students won’t be building something new; they’ll be improving and expanding on systems that already exist. The students in Edison High School’s EASYpro (Edible Agriculture Schoolyard Professional) class will be re-building a defunct portion of their aquaponics system to allow them to produce microgreens for their school cafeteria. The students in Roosevelt High School’s Urban Farming class expanded their rain garden and the students at Northeast Middle School will be revitalizing the vermicomposting bins that fell into disuse. Spark-Y staff and Columbia Heights students are working closely with the Blooming Heights garden coordinator to re-shingle the garden shed and repair old cold frames.

Above: Roosevelt students add new perennials to the school rain garden, including American highbush cranberry.

In addition to those daily and weekly Spark-Y programs, this year we are supporting five “Systems Partners” schools, including Prairie View Elementary. Ensuring that the seeds we’ve planted across the Twin Cities are growing and healthy makes Spark-Y a true gardener of sustainable systems. It also gives me hope and energy as we embark on entirely new partnerships, including:

  • Leading multiple full day Spark-Y intensive programs through the Columbia Heights Recreation Department during school breaks (piloted this October during MEA days)

  • Facilitating an On the Job Training program for youth aged 18-24 with legal history through a partnership with Summit Academy; empowering these students to gain industry-recognized Food Safety certification and supporting them in obtaining meaningful employment

  • Working with Edison youth in the DCD (Developmental Cognitive Disabilities) program on the school’s sustainable waste stream management through recycling, composting and bioremediation

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Columbia Heights Rec Department student Jacoby and the Hydraulic Arm he built in a 3 day Spark-Y program

This year we’ve decided to invest some time in strengthening Spark-Y’s foundations. In addition to tending existing sustainable systems in 12 schools across the Twin Cities, we’re taking a deep dive into developing and polishing our curriculum and organizational systems. We want to streamline our processes, document best practices and make sure that we do can be replicable. We’re challenging ourselves as a staff team to take the quality of our programming to the next level by integrating restorative practices to our behavior management plan, connecting our curriculum to broader school units, and linking our activities to MN state standards. When the 5th graders at the Community School of Excellence are in the school’s Justice unit, their Spark-Y days will be filled with food justice and watershed protection activities. When they go to take the Science MCA test at the end of the year, they will be equipped with hours of Spark-Y facilitated, hands-on experiments leveraging their in-class aquaponics systems. In the long run, the investments we make in quality and care of our systems--whether they’re meant to produce food, empowered youth, or both--will pay off by allowing us to not only achieve our mission, but keep that impact going.

Northeast Middle School student hangs out at the square foot gardening activity table when he was struggling to follow power tool safety directions during Garden Build Day. Within minutes of beginning this hands-on activity he went from angry to calm and proud of his work.

Northeast Middle School student hangs out at the square foot gardening activity table when he was struggling to follow power tool safety directions during Garden Build Day. Within minutes of beginning this hands-on activity he went from angry to calm and proud of his work.