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2018 Summer Internship

Spark-Y Impact Report: 2017-18

Spark-Y Impact Report: 2017-18

Youth Empowerment. This is our mission as an organization and also a directive that shapes our organization - from the curriculum we deliver in our school programs and the real-world approach we take in our summer internship program, to the opportunities for community outreach and youth employment we provide through Urban Agriculture Lab. These three branches of our organization work systemically to positively impact Twin Cities youth, providing multiple pathways for empowerment and growth both within and beyond our organization.

Perhaps this is why so many of our Spark-Y youth begin in our school programs, graduate from our summer internship program, and go on to gain employment at Spark-Y or other organizations as a result of their experiences.

As an organization we are always asking ourselves the same question: How do we measure youth empowerment?
Can it be measured by student grades in our school programs?
Or by the dollar value of projects completed in our summer internship?

If you ask one of our Sustainability Educators, they might tell you other stories of empowerment:

  • The transformation of disengaged students who rally to save a classroom fish, complete an assignment for the first time in their classroom history, or join an elective leadership opportunity (our elementary Captains program).

  • The marvel of watching student-led creations come to life, as young people use STEM-based learning and utilize power tools to design, build, and cultivate their own sustainable systems.

  • Youth interns sharing their summer internship successes on stage in front of our Minneapolis Mayor, Jacob Frey - then going on to secure jobs and admittance to higher education programs as a result of their experiences.

As we continue to share these meaningful stories of youth empowerment on our blog, Facebook, and Instagram we also want to share the other side of how we measure youth empowerment, through our Spark-Y Impact Report. This report is designed to help us as an organization measure our successes, focus our future efforts, and paint a broader picture for our supporters (that’s you!) the value of your investment in our organization.

Together, we are empowering more Twin Cities youth than ever before.


Total Youth Served in 2017/18: 1,926

School Programs:

This branch of Spark-Y provides hands-on education, rooted in sustainability and entrepreneurship to Twin Cities youth in school classrooms, workshops, one-time events, and customized programming.

In 2017/18 Spark-Y provided curriculum for:

  • 13 schools

  • 18 regularly occurring school programs or 2,799 class periods and 1,334 youth regularly served

  • Workshops and one-time events impacting 401 youth and 191 adults

  • Reaching a total of 1,735 youth

Within our school programs, youth engaged in hands-on curriculum that resulted in:

  • 10 permanent in-school aquaponics systems

  • 35 mini-aquaponics systems

  • 4 permanent vermicompost systems


Did you know?

In 2017-2018 Spark-Y doubled the number of permanent aquaponics systems built in the previous year.

Another marker of impact in 2017-18 was our expanded reach and lasting impact within of our partnerships with Twin Cities Schools:

  • Addition of Edison High School LEAF (Leadership Education Agriculture Future) program - a diploma certification with Spark-Y programming spanning 5 class offerings.

  • Our third year of programming at Roosevelt High School, including our urban farm and EASY Pro (Edible Schoolyard Professional) programs.

  • Our seventh year at School of Environmental Studies.

  • We also celebrated our fifth year at Southside Family Charter.

Fast Fact:
After participating in a Spark-Y school program, 62% of youth reported knowing ways they can live more sustainably.

Spark-Y continued to expand interpersonal partnerships:

  • 2 school interns from a continued partnership with HECUA program (non-profit with a focus on social justice, human rights and sustainability).

  • 2 AmeriCorps members on staff.

Urban Agriculture Lab (UAL)

The second branch of Spark-Y, the Urban Agriculture Lab, provides support to our school programs through sustainable systems research, facilitation of youth classroom builds, and ongoing maintenance to in-classroom systems. The UAL operates in indoor production facility, providing a sustainable revenue model for the organization and a youth job pathway. Lastly, the UAL is home to our DIY Bio Lab, equipping our classrooms with new, innovative science projects and providing workshops and outreach throughout the Twin Cities.

In 2017/18 the Urban Ag Lab:

Reached 167 youth and 175 adults through tours.

  • Impacted 199 youth with hands-on STEM workshops, in a new partnership with Hennepin County Libraries.

  • Provided a work-based learning internship with 3 Edison students, complete with class credits and stipends.

  • Employed 1 youth apprentice.

  • Impacted 23 youth at our second year in attendance as speakers at CONvergence.

  • Hosted 47 volunteers.


Fast Fact:

Spark-Y moved office headquarters in August of 2018, moving their 1,300 square foot indoor aquaponics system to construct a timber-frame, vertical growing system at their new offices in Northeast Minneapolis.

Additionally, the Urban Ag Lab participated in the following:

  • Hosted a Spring Plant sale, attracting hundreds of visitors.

  • Featured exhibitor at the Minnesota State Fair, Common Table.

  • A stop on the 2018 Farm Tour.

Summer Internship

The third branch of our organization, the Summer Internship Program, a sustainability bootcamp where young people gain real-world experience through hands-on projects with our Twin Cities partners.

In 2018 Spark-Y provided 41 paid internship positions for our youth, completing:

  • Design and build of a two-ton timber frame aquaponics system

  • A rain garden

  • Indoor aquaponics system

  • Garden shed

2018 interns receiving paid stipends, with Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, in front of a youth-built timber frame aquaponics system at the Spark-Y Open House.

2018 interns receiving paid stipends, with Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, in front of a youth-built timber frame aquaponics system at the Spark-Y Open House.

Looking ahead:

With a nod to this last year’s accomplishments, we also look forward to focusing our efforts in key areas of growth to create even more impact in the year to come.

This includes:

  • Creating even more ways to measure our impact, including, entrance / exit surveys and methods of qualitative data collection.

  • Expanding our community workshop offerings to build interest and curiosity in new communities.

  • Thinking of new and innovative ways to fund and expand into new school partnerships, including the ten schools on our current wait list.

  • Increasing our employment pathways.

  • Adding professional certifications to our work based learning programs.

We are very excited to share this information with you. We appreciate your continued support of our organization and other Twin Cities organizations that are actively uplifting the lives of youth all around us. We could not do this work without you. We thank all of our volunteers, staff, Board, fiscal contributors, partners, and cheerleaders for your ongoing support.

Let’s keep building towards empowering our youth, so that they can go on to empower their families, schools, and our greater community!


A Special Thanks:

In the last month we have received in-kind support of our organization from the Joan Brick McHugh memorial. These donations were given to honor her memory, and for that, we are sincerely grateful. We would also like to recognize Spark-Y Founder, Mary Helen Franze, for her ten years of service on our Board of Directors and for choosing Spark-Y to honor her mother's memory.

A Not So Typical Internship Story

A Not So Typical Internship Story

This isn't your typical internship story. There were no coffee runs, no taking notes, and no running errands. There's two parts to our story and they are both very different. For seven weeks our team worked on building an aquaponics system for Spark-Y at their new location in the Casket Arts Building.


The first part of our internship started with a well organized plan of how we would accomplish all of our goals in about a month. All of us felt very confident that we knew exactly what we got ourselves into. You guessed it, we were wrong.

We began with re-organizing the storage closet and finding all your typical necessities such as a topsy turvy tomato plant or a vintage indoor watering hose that no longer exists anywhere. Our next challenge was measuring and weighing 20 bluegills. The weighing and measuring only caused one physical injury, but trying to catch the last fish caused us all mental injury, mostly because that last fish turned out to be three. After our adventure with the fish that left us smelling like a lake, we got in touch with our green side and started growing microgreens, which unlike the rest of our internship, came with no surprises.

Next came the hard part...

...For the past four weeks, our team of 4 have literally put blood, sweat and maybe a few tears into building a aquaponic system that is 2,000 plus pounds. To make it even harder, we built it using timber framing.

If you're anything like the majority of people, you probably don't know what timber framing is. Timber framing is a way to build a structure without using metal materials such as nails or screws. It's more or less the grown up version of Lincoln Logs.

For about four weeks our team worked to create this massive structure with no background in woodworking. Thank goodness for Sam and Eddie there to guide us throughout the whole experience. Most of our time during those four weeks was spent chiseling. Chiseling out deep holes, chiseling to make the wood smooth, chiseling to make an end piece smaller, chiseling more when the wood wouldn't fit together. That's a whole lot of chiseling and I didn’t even bother to mention half of it. After three weeks of chiseling, sawing and slicking, our team proudly has the most toned arms and can finally see our hard work put together.

Next, we had to make sure all of it fit together and sadly it did not.

After another three days of testing and re-adjusting, the whole system was put together.


Now to give you, the reader, a sense of just how heavy this system is, we needed 15 people to push it up, along with chains and pulleys. Taking less than five minutes to push this massive structure up, we realized it was pushing up against a water pipe. With all of our combined luck being used in that very moment, thankfully we didn't break the pipe and were able to move it an extreme four inches. Seeing what we have worked on for the past four weeks standing tall and strong was an amazing sight. Even while knowing how big each timber was, it looked larger than life and beautiful. As a team we look forward to finishing our project and sharing it at the open house as a completely functional system with everyone.

“My favorite part of the project was seeing our system standing in its permanent home, even though it was a struggle to get it there.” ~Megan

“Despite the timber framing process adding extra time and setbacks to our project I'm glad we decided to timber frame it. It made the whole experience even more unique compared to a typical internship.” ~Connor

“The best way I could describe timber framing to my friends and family was by saying that we basically built Noah’s Ark. It was truly an incredible experience.” ~Nick

“I’m very excited to see everyone's reaction during the open house. I tried to explain how big the system is to my family but realized it's much much bigger than I had described.” ~Abby

Green Minds Reach New Heights

Green Minds Reach New Heights

The following blog post was written by the Columbia Heights Internship team:  Shannon Van Dusartz, Mychayla Brown, Alejandra Diaz Torres, Modou Dibba, Salma Khalifs and Peyton Thao.

Our mission at Spark-Y is to empower youth with hands-on education, so the emphasis during our Columbia Heights Summer School project was to engage the students with hands-on learning.  Our intern group consists of four Columbia Heights 10th graders, who are experts on all things aquaponics—they built the aquaponics system that currently resides in the high school.  The last intern is a senior at the College of Saint Benedict, whose expertise is definitely not in aquaponics; however, our all-star team taught each other new things and tackled the challenge of planning a summer school curriculum head-on.


Our purpose was to plan eight days of content for a Spark-Y sponsored booster class for the Columbia Heights Encore Summer School Program. The first challenge was to think of ideas for the class as none of us had created curriculum before, and there was so much freedom to what we could plan.  We thought about what Spark-Y has taught us during the development days and what Spark-Y teaches at other schools. We also wanted to utilize our diverse knowledge and experiences, and include those into our program. Finally, we decided on five themes with many activities in between: sustainability, aquaponics, gardening, fish, and nutrition.  Selma and Alejandra took responsibility for the gardening, Modou and Peyton took charge during the fishing lessons, Shannon led the nutrition portion, and we all organized and led the aquaponics and sustainability lessons. To fill in the time, we did various activities like playing Ultimate Ninja or Mafia, and we even went outside into spectacular garden with Ms. Lemon.


One of our bigger projects during the program was to design and build a new shed door with help from Andrew, and the students were more than willing to build something with power tools. We had great help from our Spark-Y advisers Lynn, Krista, and Cece to teach the students about the Five Keys of Professional Development and the Five E’s of Sustainability.

Moving wood for the new shed door.

Moving wood for the new shed door.

Andrew, Spark-Y Systems Excellence Specialist helping the team on their shed door build.

Andrew, Spark-Y Systems Excellence Specialist helping the team on their shed door build.

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Hands-on Build

Our overall experiences share the same theme—we loved seeing the students learn and interact with new things.  Here are some quotes from our intern group about our favorite parts of the experience and some challenging things as well.

Alejandra Diaz
“I think my favorite part of the camp was seeing the campers grow in knowledge. They started off with no idea of what aquaponics was, and in the end they became experts. I think they gained a lot from this program; not only did it spark new interests in them, but they learned about sustainability and were able to define and explain what it means and how important it is. One of the things that got complicated during the camp was that they were very active. I mean it was kind of predictable they are at the age were they have the most energy, and I found it hard getting them to refocus and settle down. Once we got their attention it was amazing how engaged they were. We asked them questions about aquaponics, fish, nitrogen cycle, plants and they were able to answer them from the knowledge they already had. One of my other favorite parts of the camp was to see the students care about our environment.  They were very smart kids, and I enjoyed seeing them learn. At the end of the three weeks, not only did the students grow, but I believe our team grew as well. We started off knowing nothing about planning a curriculum and at the end we got the hang of it. We grew as team; not only were we coworkers, but we became closer to the point where I now consider them my friends. I loved this experience. If I have the chance to keep teaching younger kids about sustainability and our environment and how important it is, I would gladly do it again.”


Modou Dibba
“I had a basic idea of what was going on, or so I thought.  Little did I know about time management. The first day of class was great, with basic introductory activities. But then it hit. The second day, jumping, screaming, slapping.  It was just a game of Ultimate Ninja, but then it went out of control. Then Lynn calmly got all their attention and got them to sit down. After the second day, every day got better and better. Then one student just suddenly decides not to follow the rules, he received a warning and didn’t listen. Another student kept getting out of his seat in the last week, using skills I learned from from Lynn, Krista, Cece and my teammates, I was able to get him to calm down. Ever since I was a kid, science was the only field I wanted to pursue--now I see there are many other great options. I decided after this internship to keep my options open. The job fair held at Spark-Y on a development day helped me see ever more options. I still love science, but now I want to discover myself more.”

Selma Khalif
“My favorite experience during this joyride of a program was learning and getting to know each individual student. Our total of student was supposed to be 18 but was deducted to the ridiculous six we had at the end. Some of the students were the Human Google, who had all the answers to all science related question of his grade and above. Then there was the shy, kind-hearted young lady who when she talked...SHE TALKED--like in the most intriguing way, too.  Then came one who was the oldest physically, but not mentally. The funniest goofball who made anyone around him seem like they knew him for years. Another was the “Canadian shipper” who envisioned the exportation of his greatest garden enemy “the Japanese beetle”. The sweet hilarious munchkin whose innocent, natural jokes made you laugh really hard and her fast learning abilities is astonishing. Last but never the least, one student was out of this world unique--he was so creative with his thinking and the way he interprets ideas.  It gives you nostalgic feelings of your childhood. His greatest quote in the camp was “the liver is the garbage can of the organs”. Man, it gives you chills. I’ve gone through all my memories of these wonderful kids, and my time with them has sadly come to an end. But, I hope you enjoyed the description of them.”

Peyton Thao
“This was a fun experience for me and there are multiple moments during this time that were amazing. Out of all the things that happened, my favorite was dissecting fish and showing them majority of the fish organs. Our students also had to experience a horrific smell when I cut opened a sunfish (A.K.A. sunny fish).  It was a mix of rotting fish, trash juice, and vomit. It was the best and worst thing that I did during the time. I would say one of the hardest parts is getting some kids to listen to the things that we were teaching them. The kids got really rowdy at times, but we handled it really well. I learned a lot these past weeks like how the pH scale works, how purple cabbage can make purple water, and a plant like mint grows in Minnesota. All in all, I liked this summer program and I would (or will) do it again.” 


Shannon Van Dusartz
“These last few weeks have been the most beneficial and stressful time in my life.  The only experience I have teaching children was when I was a theater camp counselor for third grade—that is much different than teaching summer school students about sustainability.  But, through all the stress and complications, I learned so much about myself and my amazing teammates. My fellow interns taught me about how to be a better teacher and student, and they also taught me about aquaponics, which I knew nothing about prior to this program. While there were complications during the program, like the big aquaponics system breaking down, or having issues engaging the students and having them listen, the outcome of the camp was a teacher’s dream.  On the last day, the student held their own open-house to the other summer school student about everything they learned; they knew so much more than we taught them and seeing them show off their knowledge was so gratifying.  The last day was my favorite part, for sure. Overall, this program taught me so much, and I am so grateful for Spark-Y for providing this experience.” 

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Keep Calm and Rain On

Keep Calm and Rain On

The following blog post was written by the Roosevelt Rain Garden Internship team: Zach Bigaoutte, Aidan Cuoco, Miguel Garcia, Amir Sheikhali, Sheila Sullivan, Hannah Wallace, and Davon Washington.

The goal of this internship team was to install a rain garden at Roosevelt High School as well as take care of the many sustainable systems present at the school. This project was funded in thanks to Hennepin County and RBC Wealth Management.


Kicking Grass and Taking Names

One hot summer afternoon six Spark-Y interns embarked on a journey they would never forget. To start the summer these six Spark-Y interns began giving the Roosevelt Urban Farm the much needed love and attention it was so desperately craving, having been neglected since the end of the school year. Being the go-getters we are, we went headfirst into maintaining the farm, greenhouse, aquaponics, vermicompost, hydroponic, piano planter, and turtle planter. Roosevelt is one of the schools in the Twin Cities where the students are able to grow foods in the garden that are used in the cafeteria as a part of the Spark-Y curriculum in their urban farming class. As school is not in session, it was up to us to keep up the good work the students had done during the year. This included weeding the garden, watering the plants, training the bean and cucumber plants to latch to a trellis, and pruning the tomatoes.


One of the biggest pests we dealt with was ridding the gardens of the Japanese beetles, a problem that is prevalent all over Minnesota. These shiny bronze bugs had to be picked off the plants and thrown into a bucket of soapy water to ensure they wouldn’t go back to munching on our produce or attract other beetles due to the pheromones they release on the plants as they eat them! We eventually found the bush where thousands of the bugs were living and went to town picking them off the leaves. To make it fun, we had a little competition amongst us to see who could hold the most beetles in one hand (Sheila won with 30). Along with all these tasks, we had to cut back the sun-artichokes, also known as Jerusalem artichokes. These are tuber plants, so if you try to pull it up and it rips, two more will sprout up, like the head of a Hydra! The sun artichokes had spread over all of the garden so we each took turns cutting them down, resulting in a better looking garden and many bug bites all over Aidan.

Hole-y Water

If that wasn’t hard enough, we also decided to tackle building a rain garden. The goal of rain gardens are to filter out pollutants in water runoff. Rain gardens are built where there is natural irrigation and flow of water already, usually on a hill or slope. In urban settings, runoff is particularly toxic due to chemicals, infrastructure, and general city pollution. This runoff goes right into our drinking water and while we do have facilities to purify water, not every toxin can be eliminated. Rain gardens are a natural, beautiful, and environmentally friendly way to help this process. Another benefit is that we are able to bring in native, perennial plants from Minnesota that also able to provide ecosystem services and bring in pollinators to the garden. While the end result brings so many fantastic benefits, the work was not all sunshine and daisies.

The Journey to the Center of the Earth


This quest started out day one of the internship. We had to call Gopher One, a utility contractor, to make sure the area we were going to excavate was clear of electrical wires and piping. We marked off the area with flags and the company inspected it before giving us the all clear to move ahead. After a heated debate over the true equation for area of a circle (or Zach just being bad at math), we were on our way. We started by taking all the sod off from the hole plot and disposing of it. Next comes the series of unfortunate events. For the slope of the area where the rain garden is, the depth has to be around six inches. So understandably, we dug the six inches. The next day we realized we actually had to dig out nine inches to account for the three inches of mulch we had to add in. At this point we had dug nine inches in total and began leveling it out. By some stroke of luck, we ended this day before putting the mulch in. This would have made our lives a lot more difficult in the long run because the next work day we realized we had to dig even deeper. A lot deeper. Two more feet to be exact!

The additional depth was for research that one of the interns, Hannah, is conducting for the University of St. Thomas. The overview of the study is to compare water leachate of the rain garden between standard condition and a treatment consisting of drinking water residuals (drinking water residuals are a byproduct of water treatment that are found to reduce Phosphorus runoff). This required lysimeters that collect the water to be put in below the normal depth of a rain garden. So we got to digging accompanied by “Dig It”, the theme song for the movie Holes starring Shia Labeouf (fun fact: Shia Labeouf roughly translates to “The Holy Beef”, which we dubbed our groups own personal hashtag). Supplemented by popsicles and lots of water breaks, we dug out the additional feet. We installed the lysimeters and a plastic divider between the two conditions and began to fill the hole up. We got it to the nine inches, leveled it out, and celebrated that small victory. However, our work was far from over.

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Post- Hole: A New Era

The hole was filled in and thankfully, we got a long weekend break to relieve our sore hands, backs, arms…. Let’s just say our whole bodies! When we returned we had a few more tasks to complete before we planted the perennials. These jobs included: filling in the hole with mulch, building the berm (a barrier wall made out of dirt to make the lower edge of the rain garden the same height as the top side), and disposing the excess dirt. Filling the hole with mulch was quite easy, it took around 10 minutes to shovel it in and even it out. Building the berm was also not a difficult task as we already had a huge pile of dirt where the berm was to be located, so all we had to do was even it out and make it compact. However, disposing of all of the dirt we didn’t use was a difficult job! It took countless wheelbarrows and three full, giant containers full of dirt to clean up the area. This issue was compounded by the fact that one of the wheelbarrows had a flat tire, making the fifty pound loads even more physically exhausting to push! Luckily, we had zero wheelbarrow spills, like we had on previous work days by half our squad, which was an improvement for us. The dirt had been sitting in that area for around two weeks, with many rainfalls, so we had to rake, scrape, and brush the dirt for hours in an attempt to get as much of it off the grass as possible. Not to toot our own horns, but we did a pretty great job! The grass managed to stay relatively healthy, meaning we won’t have to re-plant it.

Making it Rain- Garden

All of this prep work has led up to the most important day for our internship: the volunteer tour. To help us finish up the rain garden we had a scheduled tour for volunteers to come help us in the farm and plant the rain garden. We had a group of 32 accountants from KPMG come to learn more about all of the cool sustainability features Roosevelt has to offer. We each spoke about a part of the work we have been doing at Roosevelt: Hannah did the intro, Davon showcased the aquaponics, Aidan talked about the vermicompost, Sheila explained the hydroponic, and Miguel and Amir tag-teamed the greenhouse, piano planter, turtle planter, and canoe garden. The accountants were really fascinated by everything we showed them and really seemed to enjoy the aquaponics. After the tour, we led them to the rain garden and as a group, gave them a little spiel about what a rain garden is, how it is environmentally friendly, and which plants we were going to be planting, along with a fun fact about each one (big bluestem grass, broadleaf arrowhead, lake sedge, sweet joe pye weed, prairie blazing star, sweet flag, black eyed susans, butterfly milkweed, marsh marigold, and northern blue flag iris). After this, we split the group into two. We sent half off to the farm to prune plants and do some beetle picking. The other half stayed at the rain garden and began planting. Each group spent 30 minutes at each site before switching. The accountants proved to be very hardworking, helpful, and kind people. We were very happy to get to share our experience with them and show them how special Spark-Y is to us, and to the local community. Because of them we achieved our goal of installing a beautiful rain garden at Roosevelt High School for people and pollinators to enjoy. We hope we “sparked” their interest in sustainability and how little acts of kindness through volunteering and treating the earth with respect can have a huge impact.


The RUF Squad

“Let’s find a way to mention how on budget we are”- Zach, team leader

“When can we go home?” - Miguel

“Those don’t look like donuts”- Hannah, after looking at a bucket of fish

“............”- Davon

“My superpower would be digging holes really fast” - Aidan

“If you eat a lot of marsh marigolds you could get bloody diarrhea and other illnesses” - Amir to the volunteers

“Guys, don’t hold 30 beetles in your hand at one time because then you won’t be able to fall asleep cuz you’ll feel them tickling you even though they aren’t there” - Sheila