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Edison High School

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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In With the Old, Out With the New

In With the Old, Out With the New

The following blog post was written by 2018 Northeast Sustainable Systems Team: Erin Boehme, Mike Salzl, Natalie Dusek, Andy Angel, Jahir Aquino & Gabe Cayetano.

In With the Old, Out With the New: Reducing Waste By Reusing Gardening Supplies

Our Northeast Sustainable Systems Team at Spark-Y is working with three public schools in the Northeast Minneapolis area: Pillsbury Elementary, Northeast Middle School, and Edison High School. Our main focus at these locations is to work on repairing and optimizing the current sustainable systems at these schools, which consist of aquaponic systems at all three locations, as well as a community garden at the Edison location. These systems are used to introduce the students to the topic of sustainability in an engaging, hands-on manner; to provide the student body with the ability to learn more about both science in general and the skills needed for growing and farming; and finally to supply fresh, nutritious food to the school cafeterias.

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Recycling is a concept near and dear to every environmentally conscious individual’s heart. But how is it used in the garden? We used recycling in two primary ways: composting and aquaponics. Composting is a way that we can take nutrients from unwanted or unneeded sources, such as weeds or dead leaves, and turn it into a treatment to better our soil. An aquaponics system also serves to recycle nutrients in an indoor environment. As the fish excrete Ammonium and Nitrate through their waste and gills, the plants uptake the nutrients and filter the water for the fish.

It is important to remember that recycling is only one of the “Three R’s”: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. This phrase, repeated to us over and over again, seems to have lost its meaning. Many Americans focus almost solely on the recycling aspect of this mantra, when the practices of reducing and reusing are equally, if not more, important. All three are incredibly important when working towards sustainability in our nation, but it should be emphasized that these three actions are listed in order of focus. In other words, you should attempt to reduce the amount of materials you use as well as look to reuse those items, and only then recycle them once the former two paths have been exhausted.

In addition to recycling, the Northeast Sustainable Systems Team has been able to effectively use the other two vital principles of reducing and reusing in aspects of all of our projects’ systems, with our main focus in these first few weeks on Edison High School. For example, when we first started working in the Edison High School garden we noticed that there were many items left by the previous year’s gardeners. These materials were then utilized to further support the garden’s structure and to aid plant growth, amongst other tasks. We have identified five main ways in which we reused the materials already present in our gardening space, thereby reducing the number of supplies we had to purchase and diverting useful items from the landfill.


Spark-Y Plants

Rather than purchasing all of our plants from a garden store, we decided to bring some plants to our on-site locations from the Spark -Y headquarters, specifically from the Urban Agriculture Lab, or UAL. The UAL was almost overflowing with unused plants, and the Spark-Y staff were more than happy to unload some onto us. We then transferred our newly-acquired army of tomatoes, peppers, chives, and longevity spinach to the Edison High School aquaponics system and outdoor garden.


Wire Mesh

After planting in the garden, we noticed some sheets of wire mesh which had been left on the outside of the fence. We decided to use this material to support the growth of our tomato plants. The wire mesh was bent into a circle and inserted into the soil around each tomato plant, allowing the stems to cling onto the wire and grow upward, rather than outward. This not only allowed the tomato plants to thrive, but also prevented them from spreading along the ground and overcrowding one another.


Garden Rocks

While digging up one of the empty beds, we discovered several large rocks that had been hidden under the soil. What at first seemed to be only a few rocks later turned out to be a very large number, and we soon amassed a large collection. We elected to lay them out as a border for the garden’s gravel path, keeping the smaller rock gravel from moving into the open soil and vice versa. Not only did this have a practical use, but it also increased the overall visual appeal of the garden.


Letter "E" Sign

After cleaning up some trash around the perimeter of the fence, we found a very odd bit of litter: a large piece of metal, shaped into the letter E. One side of the E was painted white, and therefore we have speculated that it had been a part of a sign once spelling “Edison.” More importantly, however, the other side of the structure made the perfect space to plant flowers. Thus, the giant letter was reused as a lovely planter for some yellow marigold flowers, representing one of Edison’s school colors.   


Pea Plant Stakes

One of the plant varieties that we decided to grow in the garden were pea plants. These were placed around the inside edge of the fence and in some terraced, elevated planters. The seedlings by the fence would be able to wrap themselves around the slots in the fence, but the seedlings in the planters had no such support. In order to allow them to grow properly, we decided to stretch string down from an upper row of horizontal yarn. Then, taking some branches from a dead tree in our compost pile, we stuck some stakes into the planters’ soil and wrapped the string around them, pulling it taut enough to give support to the future pea tendrils. 

Sustainable practices can be implemented not only at Spark-Y, but in all aspects of our lives. As we attempt to go about our day to day lives in a way that respects the planet, it should be remembered that even little acts can make a difference, and that we can all work towards a greener Earth

Michael Salzl --- “At my college house at the University of St. Thomas I recycle recyclables and compost my organics waste. I also reuse glass jars for storage and as cups, and I have greatly reduced, if not stopped, my consumption of meat and single use plastics.”

Jahir Aquino Moran --- “The way I use the Three Rs in my life is when I’m reusing old or full PC parts for my current PC . For example if there is no more space in it i would look for a old and full hard drive and delete any thing that was in it and use it also with cooling systems.”

Andy Angel --- “The way I use one or all three R’s, Reduce Reuse and Recycle is when we use old boxes and plastic bins from food for other forms of storage for other food instead of buying new plastic stuff. We save money and prevent from using a ton of new plastic.”

Erin Boehme --- “I have been a vegetarian for two years, and so have a reduced reliance on livestock agriculture: something that produces a great amount of carbon-dioxide and methane (contributing to climate change) and uses a mind-boggling percentage of the world’s freshwater supply. I have also recently been trying to reduce the waste I produce by bringing reusable bags with me when shopping, and using tupperware to transport food instead of plastic wrap and plastic bags.”

Natalie Dusek --- “In my own life, I try to reduce, reuse, and recycle in many ways. In my house we use a compost bin daily to recycle food scraps, using them to create compost, which newly growing plants can use for nutrients. Additionally, I have made many personal daily changes in my life to reduce waste. For example, one of my friends and I created DIY bee wrap to wrap food instead of using plastic wrap or plastic bags. These are just a few examples of the many ways I try to reduce, reuse, and recycle in my own life!”

Gabriel Cayetano --- “I am a part-time vegetarian when I am at my mom’s house because she is vegetarian. We also have a compost bin that we use. I have also salvaged and reused computer parts that still function.  

April Showers Bring… Snow Plowers?

April Showers Bring… Snow Plowers?

The following blog post was written by Sarah Pilato, 
Spark-Y Education Facilitator.

Students in Edison High School’s EASYpro (Edible Agricultural School Yard Professionals) class are facing quite an interesting challenge this spring.  How do they establish and maintain a successful garden when it seems like this winter will never end?

This has so far been a very exciting and busy year for EASYpro students.  The 2017-18 school year marks Edison High School’s pilot year as part of Minneapolis Public School’s Garden to Cafeteria program.  Being involved in this program means that any food that is grown at Edison can be sold to the school’s cafeteria and served to students during lunch.  Edison has several different agricultural components on their campus that are serving a huge purpose in this program. The Edison farm consists of a campus garden, a greenhouse, and an aquaponics system that the students care for throughout the year.


This year’s class dove right into the program with an incredible amount of enthusiasm.  After completing their two week food safety training, the class participated in their first official harvest!  

With the help of last year’s spring 2017 class and Spark-Y summer interns planting and maintaining the garden, there was plenty to be harvested in the fall.  This first harvest included a basket full of delicious cherry tomatoes, fresh basil and chives, and some pumpkins.

The initiative taken by the students was a meaningful experience. Students harvested, delivered, and even washed produce with the staff - chatting about new potential recipes they could make from their harvest. After this first experience, it was impossible to keep students out of the garden! (Not that we would want to.)


After being cooped up inside for several months during the bitter Minnesota winter, everyone has been getting quite antsy to be outside in the garden again.  The class was just gearing up to prepare the garden space by cleaning out the beds, tilling the soil, and building some new trellises, but wouldn’t you know it, winter decided to make another comeback.

A  surprise snow storm that hit over this past weekend left some parts of Minneapolis covered in as much as 15 inches of snow (yikes!).  All that snow threw a bit of a wrench in the garden planning process. The class quickly learned from this experience that nature doesn’t always stick to the schedule you want it to.

Ever the resilient bunch, EASYpro students are not letting this obstacle slow them down.  A few students still got out there this last week to problem solve and make decisions about moving forward.  Some resourceful thinkers on the team decided to utilize extra space in the aquaponics system to continue growing seedlings that can be transplanted once the snow clears.  This kind of adaptability is what is making Edison High School truly successful in this endeavor!

Thanks to their hard work, the aquaponics system is growing more than it ever has.  The class even hopes to make a harvest of spinach and chard from this system that they can deliver to the cafeteria very soon!

Let’s hope that this was the LAST of winter for this year so we can all start moving forward with garden season!

Anthony working on the aquaponics system

Anthony working on the aquaponics system

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Swiss Chard

Beautiful & healthy growing in our aquaponics system.

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Edison's Aquaponics System

Just after construction and not yet planted.

A Greater Opportunity for Learning - Through Failure

A Greater Opportunity for Learning - Through Failure

“I hope they learned something from trouble shooting and watching me struggle.  I hope they appreciate that I didn't give up when things weren't going well and took a mental note to do the same.” - Becca Ward, Ph.D, Spark-Y Education Facilitator

At Spark-Y, we encourage youth to learn through nature.  That’s what our school programs are all about. It’s the “sustainable education,” in our mission statement. Whether it’s an in-school aquaponics program or garden-to-cafeteria program, our goal is for young people to engage in the process of learning. Instead of theorizing what sustainability is or learning science and business from a textbook, our youth are experiencing these subjects through real-world, hands-on learning.

If there’s one things we know from nature, not everything goes according to plan. Well, not our plans, at least.

An important aspect of how we teach our youth is by understanding that our “failures” often become our greatest teacher.  Just as in nature, we learn to adapt and evolve when our current conditions are no longer sustainable. Often a failure sets in motion a greater opportunity for learning.

A great example of this happened last week at Edison High School, where Spark-Y partners to provide a host of elective classes, courses, and seminars. Becca Ward, Ph.D and Sparky Education Facilitator, shares her personal experience:


The goal was lofty.  Set up 21 mini-aquaponic systems in a single high school biology class room.  Enough so that each group of 4 high schoolers could take ownership of a system.  Trying to prepare for every eventuality, we checked and double-checked materials, ran practice trials, and brought extra supplies.  We even had a few extra fish, acknowledging that some wouldn't survive the stressful transition from pet store to high school class room.  The build day came, and unfortunately, we needed a lot more than just a few extra fish.  In the weekend following the build, half of them had passed away.  With the rush of building, grow media had not been washed, and it’s likely some of our fish suffocated from dusty waters.  A few developed fungal infections.  Later that week, we found fish lice (a parasitic crustacean) feasting on the tail of a goldfish.  And as the experiment progressed, more succumbed to high concentrations of ammonia and nitrite as we waited for bacteria to colonize.  

In that first week, I rushed to pet shops, hoping to replace each fish before students noticed. But as the days passed, fish died at rates I couldn't keep up with and for reasons I didn't fully understand myself.  Students asked me what was wrong.  I told them, "I don't know... here's what might be wrong and here's what we could test, but I'm not sure."  


It's been 4 weeks.  We started with 50 fish and now have 10.  I hope these last few survive. They've demonstrated a hardiness worthy of further investigation or perhaps commercial breeding.  The experiment didn't go as I expected.  I dreamt of perfect graphs showing the rise and fall of ammonia and nitrite levels, of students happily feeding their plump and healthy fish.  Instead students learned about failure and confusion- not what I wanted to teach but still valuable skills for their professional and personal development.  I hope they learned something from trouble shooting and watching me struggle.  I hope they appreciate that I didn't give up when things weren't going well and took a mental note to do the same.  And although it's not what I wished for, a small disappointment test emotional capabilities in a way that will hopefully serve these students later in life.  

So, RIP Dumpy.