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Columbia Heights

Vermicomposting at Columbia Heights

The following blog post was written by Columbia Heights 2019 Summer Internship Team: Mary Clare O'Shea, Anteneh Zelalem, George Bonete Quintero, and Robbie Creadick.


This summer, the Columbia Heights internship team has been working with the students at the Columbia Heights summer recreation program. Every week we strive to facilitate an engaging experience for students that will inspire them to live more sustainably. We do this by focusing each of our lessons on one of the “5 Es of Sustainability” (economics, education, equity, environment, empowerment). Then, we include a hands on activity such as building mini aquaponics systems or engineering from recycled materials. 

Last Friday, our E of the day was education. We began by teaching students the important role education plays in empowering people to better care for the planet. Many have no idea where their trash goes after throwing it away. Others believe that throwing away organic matter is environmentally friendly because it will decompose. Education is the key to curbing these misconceptions. Breaking down and re-purposing trash so it does not wind up in a landfill is integral to a healthy planet.

What better way to demonstrate this to students than vermicomposting?


Our two black bins of vermicompost sitting mysteriously on the tables prompted nonstop questions about what was inside. Once we finally cracked them open no one was disappointed by the boxes of dirt, worms and garbage. Students happily picked up shovels and began exploring the contents of the bins. At first, many were grossed out by the small wiggly red worms but they eventually warmed up to them. After discussing how the worms turn the musty smelling mixture of microgreens, wood shavings, and paper scraps into organic fertilizer, students were each given a plastic baggie to create their own vermicompost environment. Each student picked out two or three worms and were sure to name them before they placed them in their vermicompost home. Many started to ask in bewilderment how it was possible for tiny creatures like John and Spiderman to convert heaping piles of garbage into pounds of organic fertilizer. In the end, building their own mini vermicompost compelled students to appreciate the composting power of the worms and their potential as a solution for a greener future. 

Robbie: “As someone who wants to be a teacher when they grow up, this has been an extremely helpful and memorable experience. It’s amazing to see the kids build friendships with each other while also learning important things that can make the world a more sustainable place like vermicomposting.”

George: “The kids had fun writing facts about their worms and naming them in the vermicomposting activity we were doing, It was funny how three kids named all their worms ‘John’, it's nice seeing how happy and interested they are on the lessons we plan and the different activities they do to help them better understand the lesson of the day.”

Anteneh: “I think that the kids really enjoyed the vermicomposting and the video we showed them. Overall i think the kids had a fun and enjoyable time in the classroom.”

Emma: “This internship has given me my first experience teaching in a classroom. I've learned a lot from being in a situation where I'm not completely comfortable, and also from the other team members. Also, it's really fun teaching in a hands-on way!”

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

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.