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Crossroads Elementary

 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.


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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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.