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Fostering a Culture of Inquiry, Changing the World

Fostering a Culture of Inquiry, Changing the World

The following blog post was written by Carley Rice, Lead Sustainability Educator, on our Spark-Y program partnership with Community School of Excellence

The students at Community School of Excellence are lots of things, but if they are one thing, they are truly excellent. This group of fifth grade students shocks and inspires me with their innate curiosity and deep rooted LOVE for learning. Leading them on a small portion of their education journey this year has been a true honor. As I part ways with my students for the summer I reflect on the lessons they have taught me, about education, about children, and about the future of a planet in peril.

We started off the year asking lots of questions: What is sustainability? How can we live more sustainably? How can we treat our planet better? How can we treat each other better?

I think that starting off the year with open inquiry and dialogue set us up for success. Too often young people are afraid to ask questions. Maybe adults in their life discredit their opinions. Maybe they’ve been shut down by others. Maybe they don’t feel that their thoughts are valuable.

This has to change.

Creating a culture of inquiry is one of my top priorities as an educator. How can we expect children to learn and grow if they don’t ask questions?

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This year our fifth graders at CSE used power tools to build garden beds and aquaponics systems, cared for fish, grew plants, experimented with pH, and even solved engineering challenges. Throughout all of these activities they were encouraged and pushed to think critically, be creative, and ask questions. Many of these activities were new for our students and pushed them out of their comfort zones. It’s not everyday that you see a 10-year-old child successfully use a chop saw. These activities wouldn’t be possible without a group of open-minded, eager, curious young learners. Working with students like these makes my job as an educator pretty easy. CSE is a school that takes its time with students to ensure everyone feels included, heard, and important. Not all students in our city are so lucky. At Spark-Y we make it our mission and our priority to reach those students who are under-served and at-risk.

The question that is constantly on my mind as an educator is this: Why does the traditional education system fail so many young people? How can we reach these students?

I think these are questions that you could spend a lifetime considering and trying to solve. Right now, I think the answer has to do with empowerment. Too many students don’t believe in their own power. They’ve never been told that they CAN, in fact, do anything. They haven’t been given the opportunities, skill sets, and guidance to reach their potential. Their thoughts, opinions, and ideas have been ignored. Their voices have been silenced. If we can target this issue maybe we can begin to reach all students, not just the top 5-10%. I think this begins with communication. Students need to feel heard. But, before they can feel comfortable opening up and sharing they need to feel respected, safe, and trusted.

Every week at CSE students were presented with a challenge that is currently facing our world. Topics such as waste, water consumption, pollution, inequity, food deserts, and climate change were introduced and discussed. Some may think that these topics are “too big,” or “too daunting” for young minds. I disagree. I think that by trusting our youth with these ideas and challenges we are showing them that we respect them, that we need their help, and that we fully believe in their abilities. It is their generation that will turn our climate crisis around. Why wait till they are adults to present these ideas? This approach lets students know that we trust them, and that it’s okay to share their opinions. Young people just want to feel like adults actually see them, hear them, and understand them.


Our work at CSE this year was a great example of this. These 10 and 11 year old students not only were able to grasp big, complicated concepts, but they were able to articulate their thoughts and even brainstorm potential solutions. It’s amazing what children are capable of when they are in an empowering environment that cultivates curiosity, critical thinking, and inquiry.

A few weeks ago I had a student ask me why earthworms come out of the ground after a rainstorm. I told him that that’s such a great question, and then asked him to find the answer for me and report back next week. As soon as I walked into the classroom the following week he came up to me with a piece of notebook paper and presented his findings. It’s simple, small moments like this that reassure me that our approach is working. Children are innately curious. It’s up to us to keep that fire ignited and do our best to never let it burn out.

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Spark-Y 'On Fire' and In the News

Spark-Y 'On Fire' and In the News

Things have been heating up this summer here at Spark-Y, with awards, grants, and even a snippet of our organization on HBO.

The Latest and Greatest:

Spark-Y is featured in Minneapolis/St.Paul Business Journal for Minne Inno Award
We are the grateful recipients of a Minne Inno award, recognizing Twin Cities' startups that are blazing trails in technology and innovation. Spark-Y was awarded for innovation in Education and was subsequently in Minneapolis/St.Paul Business Journal - full article here.

Spark-Y recipient of major grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to fund Northeast Sustainability Hub
This grant will go towards the creation of a Northeast Sustainability Hub at our headquarters in The Casket Arts building. This project will include an expansion of our Urban Agriculture Lab into a farm surrounding the Casket Arts Building, including:

  • community farming zone to grow fresh, local produce, including raised garden beds

  • pollinators houses

  • composting

  • tools storage for outdoor work.

Through this project, we are empowering more community members, achieving a greater environmental impact, and strengthen our local economy.

In keeping with our self-sustaining model, the expansion will be naturally embedded into our operations — leveraging our established position as a community leader in education and sustainability to provide a new center for urban agricultural growth and discovery -- the Northeast Sustainability Hub.

HBO --- Wyatt Cenac's show, “Problem Areas,” came to Minneapolis to visit the Spark-Y Urban Agriculture Lab
Spark-Y’s microgreens timber-frame tower and Caitlin Barnhart, Spark-Y Urban Farm Manager, were featured in clips of the HBO show, “Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas.” HBO came to town to discuss health and school lunches and interview Minneapolis Public Schools Culinary and Wellness Director, Bertrand Weber, who connected show producers to Spark-Y through the youth in our Thomas Edison High School Program. This school program focuses on garden-to-cafeteria food, through an in-school aquaponics system and gardens combined with hands-on education for credit.

Staff and youth from Edison High School were filmed for for the day at our headquarters in the Casket Arts Building, an experience our youth were very excited about. You can watch the full episode here. And those microgreens Wyatt is staring so lovingly at? Yeah! That’s us!

Wyatt Cenac with Spark-Y staff and Edison youth.

Wyatt Cenac with Spark-Y staff and Edison youth.

Special thanks to our supporters, partners, and friends for sharing our work and helping us to continue our mission of youth empowerment!

Tangents, Passion, and Failure: Parting Words for Our 2019 Seniors

Tangents, Passion, and Failure: Parting Words for Our 2019 Seniors

The following farewell address was written by
Sarah Pilato, Spark-Y Sustainability Educator.

My job at Spark-Y allows me the privilege of spending a part of every day at Edison High School with many of our LEEF (Leadership, Entrepreneurship, Environment, Future) classes. LEEF was designed to be a pathway that Edison students can follow throughout their high school education that incorporates innovative and hands-on project-based learning. Students involved in this pathway get to explore the real world that exists far outside of their classroom and how they as individuals can have an impact on it.

Sarah Pilato with Edison High School Youth

Sarah Pilato with Edison High School Youth

Since I get to spend so much time with these students throughout the year, I have the opportunity to form very strong relationships with them and the end of the year is a very bittersweet experience. It is especially so for those that are seniors who will be graduating and not returning the following year.

If I am able to leave anything with my graduating seniors to take into their futures, I hope that it is these lessons from our time together:

Embrace life’s tangents

At this point in the year, many of my students have learned that they can very easily get me off on a tangent during class. I make myself and my classroom open to these spontaneous discussions because often times, I find that they happen when students are their most excited and engaged. During a garden planning exercise, a discussion about which crops are able to grow in Minnesota quickly turned into an all-out war over pineapple on pizza (it absolutely does belong, for the record). Another day began with students participating in nutrient testing but eventually ended with a passionate discussion about what the government is doing (or not doing) to regulate various types of pollution and how those students can make more drastic changes.

When my students ask me genuine and thoughtful questions, I am more than happy to share that knowledge with them. These tangent discussions became the space where my students did their best learning. They opened up their minds to new ideas, further cemented relationships with their classmates and teachers, and gained a deep sense of pride and ownership over something that may have been brand new to them.

I hope that my students take from these small classroom experiences, that when life throws an abrupt change of course at you, it may very well just be an opportunity to learn something new, have a new experience, or find a new passion.

Find something you’re passionate about in everything that you do.

I am very much a realist when it comes to my classes. Not every student is going to love every single activity, and I try to be upfront with them about that. My challenge to them in these instances, is to find a way to connect our current adventure to something that you are excited about. A great recent example of this came during our soil health unit from just a few days ago. I’ll be the first to admit that soil health and nutrient testing can come across a lot less glamorous than some of the other topics we get to cover in a year. One particular student couldn’t have cared less about the phosphorus levels in the garden soil but what he did care about was his “pizza garden”. We were able to have a great conversation about his hopes for this garden space - production of enough tomatoes and basil that he could use them in making his own pizza sauce - and how healthy growing plants would be impossible to get without first having healthy soil. Tying this seemingly boring activity back to something that this student already cared about and had taken ownership of, reinvigorated his interest in the soil testing.

I hope that my students take from these tiny challenges that life is worth being excited about. Not everything you do will necessarily be something you are deeply passionate about, but taking even those dull moments and flipping them around can ignite a new understanding or perspective you might not have considered before.

Failure is ahead of you. Don’t be afraid of it.

Failure is a thing that is going to happen to you. I’ve learned this lesson myself many, many times over and every time I learn it, it gets a little less scary. One of my goals for my classroom throughout the year is to create a “fail safe” environment. I want my students to come to class everyday not being afraid to try something new on the chance that it might not work out the way that they want it to, or worse, for fear that they will get a bad grade if it doesn’t.

During a bridge building competition (a stepping stone to our first major building project of the year), 2 of my students were becoming increasingly frustrated when the tactic they were trying kept resulting in broken popsicle sticks before their bridge was even completed. After resetting their minds a bit and making a few adjustments, they were able to improve their bridge’s weight-bearing capabilities. Another student attempted a fish breeding experiment that resulted in exactly 0 offspring being born. Reflecting with some of his classmates, he wrote a really powerful presentation on every possible source of error and has requested to try his experiment again next year, despite not even being enrolled in the class.

I hope that my students take from these experiences that instant success is not the only way to be successful. Failed attempts are opportunities to learn, grow, and persevere your way to a rewarding outcome.

Congratulations to the graduating seniors from the class of 2019! We at Spark-Y are all so proud of you!

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3 Lessons for Empowered Teaching

3 Lessons for Empowered Teaching

The following blog post was written by Patrice Banks, Spark-Y Sustainability Educator, on her experiences as an educator at Northeast Middle School and Columbia Heights High School.


I visualize traditional teaching methods as opening up students heads, pouring in info, and changing what they may have grown to know. As an educator, I’ve learned to draw away from this method of teaching for middle-school and high-school aged adolescents. Lecturing is not always effective for youth if it’s not catered to them as an audience. I have found that traditional teaching methods simply do not work in most K-12 classrooms.

With all honesty, when I agreed to this educator role, I did not expect the impact the students would have on me. In this post, we will be exploring three ways I have changed my approach to education as a result of these experiences.

There is patience to be a scholar, and patience to be a teacher.


Spark-Y is committed to deepening its involvement in regular weekly programming at two of our partner schools: Northeast Middle School and Columbia Heights High School. Our mission in these programs is simple: empower youth with hands-on education rooted in sustainability and entrepreneurship. We rely on sustainability educators such as myself to drive changes in the classroom and teach content relevant to STEM-education, professional and personal development, amongst other things.

I’ve realized teaching requires more than my presence in the schools to empower youth. To enhance these students’ learning experiences and empower them, it’s important to make strides towards trust and relationship-building. As an educator, I’ve had to adjust my way of teaching so that students may better interact with each other and supporting teachers; intuitively teaching them to be change makers.


3 Lessons for Empowered Teaching

Collaborative Learning


At Northeast Middle School, 7th graders engineered and constructed raised garden beds for use in their school’s courtyard. This build was the first of its kind at the middle school, and a first-time experience for most students. Using their strengths in creativity and inquiry, the students cooperatively designed the garden beds for use throughout the school year. Despite the long duration of winter this year and blizzard filled days, 7th graders genuinely enjoy being able to use the outdoor space for learning.

The road to where students felt comfortable merging their social strengths with learning about sustainability did not come easy - I had to have more patient with teaching newer concepts to students. I was not used to ‘group work’ for middle schoolers, and this is where I was the one learning something new. Middle school youth are more passionate about working as a team to solve problems. To testify to this, even disruptive students involved and outside classes have verbalized that they want to help with varying projects even when they are not asked to. I also rarely see students engage in Spark-Y activities by themselves at the school. By creating an atmosphere of collaborative learning, youth in the classroom are more engaged and empowered.

I believe there’s a source light that every student has waiting to be shared with others!

Linking Youth Empowerment to School and Community Needs

“We just don’t do what some of these neighboring middle schools do with their waste,” said one participating Columbia Heights high school student when asked to reflect on the schools waste management. This led to more questions about the why behind the school’s lack of encouraged participation in waste reduction.

After learning what these students felt about their school’s initiatives, it became apparent to me the importance of linking youth empowerment to meeting the needs of the school and school community. While students can still gain empowerment by helping others, they get even more emboldened as they identify the differences they’re making in their school community.

This year at Columbia Heights High School (CHHS), Spark-Y drew students closer to establishing organic waste diversion through the utilization of a vermicomposting system. Along with other opportunities, youth have been engaging and learning through the maintenance of a now-thriving school aquaponics system, as well as project builds at the Blooming Heights garden. This project uniquely linked empowerment and sustainability to the needs of this school population.

Another need in schools, is the consideration of other factors, such as economic disadvantages or race/ethnicity. In fact, big differences between test score ratings for different race/ethnic groups may suggest that some student groups are not getting the support they need. These are the schools and classrooms where Spark-Y’s meaningful and on-purpose hands-on teaching presence is needed.

Hands-on Learning to Support Creativity

In most public school systems, students are provided with schedules to help with the organization of their day. Similar to previous decades; students follow standard schedules beginning, ending, and changing classes at the same time. The benefit of this is that there is order and structure. The disadvantage of this is just that - there is order and structure.

My suggestion to educators seeking to have an engaging environment: stimulating students’ learning with a hands-on approach rather than having students simply sit, listen, and memorize.

Consider this: seek to learn from our students as we strive to make an on-purpose effort to engage and empower them!


I hear I forget.

I see and I remember.
I do and I understand.

- Chinese Proverb