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 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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Tours, Microgreens, and More: A Look at Spark-Y's Urban Ag Lab

Tours, Microgreens, and More: A Look at Spark-Y's Urban Ag Lab

Spark-Y’s Urban Agriculture Lab (UAL), offers a blooming paradise in a cold Minnesota winter! Youth operate our aquaponic production facility, raising microgreens for sale through the Gentleman Forager, facilitating regular tours, and organizing events such as our spring plant sale. Since the beginning of 2018 alone, more than 180 students and over 20 community members have toured Spark-Y’s UAL. Read on to learn more about the UAL, and the activities that our awesome interns, volunteers, youth apprentices, and citizen scientists are participating in.

The Latest from the Urban Agriculture Lab


Spark-Y’s fresh, local, youth-grown microgreens are being used in restaurants across the Twin Cities, through our partnership with the Gentleman Forager. These microgreens will also soon be offered for sale at the Gentleman Forager stand in the new Keg and Case marketplace opening spring, 2018. Revenue earned through this partnership allows youth in Spark-Y’s school programs to be employed in the UAL, where they can apply the skills and knowledge learned in their school program to a real-world setting. Kelly, our first youth apprentice, was a student at Roosevelt High School. He participated in the Roosevelt Urban Farm Squad for two years, and in Spark-Y’s summer internship for two years. He was hired on as staff in August, 2017, and is now helping produce microgreens for the Gentleman Forager partnership.


Baby Blue Tilapia were bred as a special project by our intern Nicholas Jacob. They were born on November 3rd, 2017. These fry will reach a mature size within about nine months. Tilapia are the ideal species to raise with students in our school programs for their hearty nature, and ability to reach maturity quickly. We like to celebrate the creation of a food system with the students in our school programs, by participating in a fish fry at the end of each year. These Blue Tilapia fry are currently being raised by the youth apprentices and interns operating our UAL. We intend to sell them to local restaurants and individual consumers right around August, 2018 when they reach maturity. Our tilapia make extra tasty (and sustainable!) fish tacos incase you were wondering.


Spark-Y’s mission of sustainability education and empowerment stretches beyond the youth in our programs. Every-other Thursday evening from 6 to 7pm we welcome the public to join us on a tour of the UAL. Tours only cost $10, and will go through each of the sustainable systems we utilize in the classroom as drivers of STEM education. You can sign up for a tour on Spark-Y’s Shop page.

Side note: You can also stop by before the tour on Thursdays from 5-6pm to purchase fresh, youth-grown microgreens!

This summer, Spark-Y will also be partnering with the Hennepin County Library to offer a series of STEM focused workshops. Keep an eye on our Facebook page, or sign up for our newsletter to learn more.


What’s Ahead for the Urban Agriculture Lab:

Are you getting antsy for spring? We sure are! Get your pants from Spark-Y at our 2nd annual Spring Plant Sale taking place May 5th, 2018. All your veggies, flowers, herbs, and even native plants will be available! We will also be offering mushroom log demonstrations, UAL tours, and activities for the kiddos throughout the day. Sign up for our newsletter at to receive a pre-order form for the 2018 plant sale.


Looking to get involved?

You can support Spark-Y and our UAL by participating in any of the following events:

  • Come on a tour - Offered every-other Thursday 6-7pm.
  • Purchase microgreens @ Spark-Y, 5-6pm on Thursdays.
  • Come to our plant sale on May 5th.
  • Purchase a mushroom log, T-shirt, fanny pack, SCOBY, or vermicompost bin at, or on Thursdays 5-6pm.
  • Sign up for our newsletter.
  • Donate
  • Volunteer
  • Like & follow us on Facebook

DIY Bio Lab at Spark-Y

DIY Bio Lab at Spark-Y

Today’s spotlight is on the DIY Bio lab at Spark-Y. Although a segment of the lab based support team for the last three years and a growing branch of the Spark-Y tree, not much has been published about our DIY Bio lab. It’s time to take a closer look at what we have to offer.

What is DIY Bio? 
Also known as Bio-hacking, DIY Bio is a movement of hobbyists aiming to increase accessibility to all types of biology, often focusing on molecular biology. At Spark-Y, this takes the form of making low-cost alternatives to expensive peaces of equipment. Some examples are our 3D printed pipettes, Light Bulb PCR machine, and in house assembled gel imager.

What is our lab like?
Our small, BioSafetyLevel1 lab is tucked into a corner of our office area at our Chicago Ave. headquarters. We focus heavily on biology and use our space to investigate, explore, and augment other branches of Spark-Y. Some projects that we have recently completed are STEM experiment kits for our educators to take with them to our programs. We are currently working on outfitting our test system with sensing and data logging capabilities.

Woah cool, how long has Spark-Y had a lab?
The first incarnation of the lab was made in the summer of 2013, and was made of donated cabinetry. The lab was re-made in it’s current location spring of 2016. Most of our equipment was either purchased when the first lab was made or donated.

What can a lab like this do?
Although we have some limitations when it comes to safety (all organisms must be bio-safety level one) and chemical disposal (drain safe chemicals only), we are able to perform the basics of molecular biology such as DNA analysis. Much of our work is in the small electronics field, building equipment.

I like science! Can I work in the lab too?
YES! Our mission is to increase access and involvement in STEM disciplines – If you are a hobbyist and need a place to work on your science-y project, come hang out on our open lab nights! Contact or the MN DIY Bio group for more information.

If you are a minor and would like to do some hands on science, we will be offering workshops. Stay tuned!