Viewing entries tagged

A Summer of Sustainability at Roosevelt

A Summer of Sustainability at Roosevelt

The following blog post was written by Nurfadila Khairunnisa, Keriann Cooper, Olya Noyes, and Tunger Hong on their 2019 internship project at Roosevelt Urban Farm (RUF ).

This summer, the Roosevelt Urban farm (RUF) team is taking on big projects for the students and community members at Roosevelt High School. Roosevelt is located in South Minneapolis, just a couple blocks north of Lake Nokomis. During the school year, Roosevelt offers an Urban Farming class that works on and takes care of the aquaponics system and the outdoor garden in collaboration with Spark-Y. This is all part of Roosevelt principal, Principal Bradley’s initiative to make his school “made by the students.” Two of Spark Y’s interns in the RUF team this summer, Olya and Keriann, are also students in the Urban Farming class during the school year!

As our biggest project, our team will build a hoop house on school grounds for students to be able to grow plants all year long. A hoop house acts very similarly to a greenhouse but with better ventilation. It is made by hoops made of PVC which are placed in a row and covered by greenhouse plastic. They should be placed in a location with good soil and in an area open to sunlight. Some benefits of having a hoop house include helping extend growth season by up to four months, holding in heat, being easy to relocate and move around, holding in moisture which is good for the soil, and much more.

So far, we have not started on the hoop house since we’ve only gathered all of our material last week. We hope to get started on it this week and to have it done as soon as we can.

Another one of our projects is to reorganize the aquaponics classroom that students use during the school year. We are getting help from an interior designer named Ilana, who is a friend of our team lead, Matt. In the first picture, you can see how the room currently looks like after moving around some of the big tables and cleaning up the area. It isn’t how we want it to look like just yet but looks a lot better than how it looked when we first stepped into the room!

The classroom following interior design changes.

The classroom following interior design changes.

Here are some things that our interns at Roosevelt have to say:

Tunger: "I am most excited about doing some changes to the aquaponics room and building the hoop house. Our project at Roosevelt is important to me because helping out the community is always a good thing and gives a feeling of accomplishment once finishing the project."

Keriann: "Working on Roosevelt's food systems has empowered me to start my own sustainable garden. I have a good feeling that our aquaponics system and new hoop house will also excite future Roosevelt students to engage in sustainability."

Sparking Curiosity at Roosevelt

Sparking Curiosity at Roosevelt

The following blog post was written by Matthew Kolasny, Sustainability Educator AmeriCorps.

Matthew Kolasny at Roosevelt’s indoor aquaponics system.

Matthew Kolasny at Roosevelt’s indoor aquaponics system.

At Roosevelt High School in South Minneapolis, I have the honor of participating in and helping lead a daily high school course that exposes students to principles of sustainability, entrepreneurship, and environmental justice through urban farming. Our class is different from most I’ve known before. Our students, neither bound to a single classroom nor reducible to their performance on a final exam, help care for the sustainable systems Roosevelt Urban Farm (RUF) has in place. These include several aquaponics systems and outdoor growing spaces, equipped with raised beds and a greenhouse, where we produce food for our school’s cafeteria, not to mention a couple vermicomposting towers which help produce fertilizer for our farm. Our class encourages students to participate and interact with one another, to follow their natural curiosities, and to take part in the design and direction of the course. RUF broadens students' views of what “class” can be and encourages them to consider learning as a living, interactive process.

Roosevelt youth harvesting produce from their raised beds.

Roosevelt youth harvesting produce from their raised beds.

20181031_102247 (1).jpg

In a daily high school program, it doesn't take all that long to list the environmental benefits of aquaponics or recite the 5Es of sustainability, counting them off one by one on our fingers. Eventually, we've got to find more to talk about, and while a considerable amount of our time is spent tending to our farm, we have also studied plant and seed biology, native and indigenous farming practices and values, and labor issues amongst farm and food service workers. In my role, I try to continuously emphasize that sustainability is not measured only by how many gallons of water we save or how many pounds of waste we eliminate. Sustainability is a way of viewing and behaving in the world which acknowledges limitations and asks us how we can thrive in recognition of them. Because of this, I encourage the students I work with to consider all of what we do and study in a context of sustainability, guiding our thoughts and reactions to what we learn. We have found that there are opportunities to think and act sustainably all around us.

Aquaponics has proven to be a fascinating learning tool through which we have considered these ideas. As winter drags onwards and the icicles outside our greenhouse windows seem only to grow longer, students are drawn to the warm space lush with green plants and the rippling sound of water moving in peace. Our aquaponics space is entirely separate from our everyday classroom, not even on the same floor of the building. In a typical week, we only visit the space once or twice. After learning about the fundamental biological processes at hand, however, and learning that aquaponic structures can be scaled to almost any size the designer is willing to work toward, our students’ question was simple:

“Why don’t we have a system in our classroom?”

After that, we built two.

Utilizing some of Spark-Y’s designs and equipment and with fish tanks we were able to acquire from the school district we built two, ten-gallon aquaponic systems which have now been cycled and planted with Roosevelt heirloom cilantro, seeds recovered and saved by last year’s students and started by this year’s.

When students have the opportunity to test their skills and interests in areas many of them have previously not ventured into, they ask questions and make observations in ways that have previously not occurred to them. Why else should a bunch of teenagers from the city care enough to learn about farming or aquaponics? To me, the answer is not necessarily about creating the next generation of sustainable farmers. Instead, I believe it’s about helping students activate their natural capacities, their curiosities to problem-solve and innovate. The moments in which I myself feel most empowered are those when I am able to connect with students somehow, when I'm able to get them to smile and take interest in what we are learning, and when they treat me as though it is worth it to them to have me and our class in their lives. They want to know what we can do to help them today before they care about how we are here to save the world tomorrow. My work with these students has shown me that once we are able to show this kind of commitment to them, they are more likely to extend that commitment to others and to the world around them.


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.

IMG_1683 (1).JPG

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


RUF Squad Seniors Leave Lasting Impression

RUF Squad Seniors Leave Lasting Impression

The following blog post was written by Zachary Bigaouette,
Spark-Y Education Facilitator & Green Corps Member.

Background: Spark-Y Roosevelt High School program serves grades 9 - 12. Students learn about science, agriculture, and more through hands-on curriculum rooted in sustainability. This is one of two Spark-Y schools participating in garden-to-cafeteria programming


With the school year coming to a close there is a bittersweet aroma in the air as we are forced to say goodbye to the Senior members of the Roosevelt Urban Farming Squad (or RUF Squad for short). Although we are happy to see them graduate and move on to their next chapters in life we are sad to see them leave the farm that they have made their own. However, the senior RUF squad members are not leaving the school without leaving a lasting impression; this year Roosevelt’s campus has truly been transformed by the RUF squad through the various projects and sustainable systems or structures they have built.


At the start of the 2017-18 school year the RUF squad wasted no time and hit the ground running, immediately going to work on their outdoor farm and greenhouse, harvesting produce in the farm and selling it back to the school to be used in the school lunches through their Garden-to-Cafeteria program. The students in the RUF squad were also simultaneously learning about and taking care of their aquaponics system, truly exemplifying the hands-on learning experience that Spark-Y is all about! Needless to say the students appeared to have their hands pretty full, but it seems as if that wasn’t quite enough for the RUF squad because they continued to look forward and began to strive towards making their school’s campus even more sustainable. The RUF squad then built not one but TWO vermicomposting systems both complete with two vermicomposting bins adding up to a grand total of four bins filled with happy and hungry worms (more fondly known by the students at Roosevelt as red wigglers).


RUF Squad Seniors care for the


tiered vermicompost bins.

Building two vermicomposting systems to help reduce waste from the waste stream at Roosevelt is already a major accomplishment but still the RUF squad pressed onward, pausing only briefly to admire their work.  The list of projects and tasks that the students worked on after this goes on and on, ranging from designing a rain garden to researching vining plants native to Minnesota to cover the turtle sculpture created by artist Christopher Lutter-Gardella (they landed on vitis riparia, more commonly known as frost grapes). The school year seemed to fly by and end, but in a final act of altruism by the seniors of the RUF squad they left behind their farm complete with seedlings for next year’s incoming RUF squad to harvest in the fall, setting them up for another successful school year.

With all of the projects and hard work behind them the RUF squad finally had time to take a breath and reflect on their past school year. Seeing all of the amazing work and effort they put into their farm this year, it was no surprise that they would put the same amount of effort into reflecting on the school year. Here’s just a handful of stunning reviews which would give Roger Ebert a run for his money!

Junior Aidan says: “This year in Urban Farming I enjoyed learning about our aquaponics system. I would like to get my own someday! It’s fun to watch the plants grow and to take care of the fish. There were also far fewer lessons and much more hands-on work than most other classes which is what I really prefer.” 5/5 White Tilapia

Senior Aaron comments on vermicomposting stating: “Vermicompost as an idea is pretty far fetched. The heightened nutrient-rich soil from red wiggler worm castings seems wild at first, but the hands-on experience helped me a lot to see for myself just how it worked. Not to mention the extra details I learned about what to feed and not to feed the worms. Overall, Spark-Y introduced me to this concept and helped me understand it in different ways throughout the school year.” 12/12 Red Wigglers

Junior Angel comments: “I really enjoyed this class because it was very hands-on and went more in-depth into how to plant in and care for our garden. It also provided me with the skills I need and the responsibility of taking care of our garden.” 2 Green thumbs WAY up

Here’s looking forward to next year’s RUF Squad, the bar was set high this year but I have complete faith that they will go above and beyond it.