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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.

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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.


Finding a Form for Function

Finding a Form for Function

The following blog post was written by 2018 Lube-Tech Internship Team: Isabelle Paulsen, Tarryn Michelson, Hamza Yusuf, Isaac Groven.


Form and function are always battling; to get one you need to make concessions for the other. Many assume that sustainability is only associated with function, however, we are proving that sustainability can be equal parts of both. With the help of the Bame Foundation, our project is to build an aquaponics system in the Golden Valley office of Lube-Tech, a Minnesota based industrial lubrication distributor and recycler. But this is no ordinary aquaponics system. Our focus is to make this an aesthetically pleasing structure that belongs in an office, not just a functional garden. From the final design to the plants and fish that will grow in this system, we have had the opportunity to totally create a system we believe our client will love and spread Spark-Y’s vision of accessible sustainability. This is not a plain fish tank nor is it solely a structure to grow mass amounts of food; instead we are combining the two features to create a system where beauty and being environmentally-friendly coincide.

As an avid Minnesota outdoorsman, Lube-Tech’s CEO Chris Bame hoped to have only native Minnesotan fish swim in this tank. We loved this idea so much we decided to use as many Minnesotan and locally-sourced species as we could. For our fish, we are housing large mouth bass and walleye, sourced from a local Forest Lake pet store. The rest of our 232 gallon tank will be filled with bluegill from our very own Spark-Y Urban Agriculture Lab. We want to give a special shout out to the Urban Ag Lab intern team that is helping make this transfer possible. For our plants, Minnesota native mint and watercress will be planted alongside basil, lettuce, arugula, and spinach. Sustainability starts with the community and buying or sourcing locally is a great way to make a difference.


Minnesotan woodworker Brandon Anderson is turning this system into a work of art that will fit in any space. We are working together to make aquaponics accessible, that anyone who walks into Lube-Tech’s office will say: “Wow, how do I get this system?” It might not produce the most food, but it challenges the way we think about sustainability by turning food systems into something we want rather than just need. It is not just making sustainability functional but aesthetic too, from hobbyists to businesses around the community. Our small actions add up to make a big difference, but this system is also an example of how companies are taking steps towards sustainability and making large scale change.

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Overall this project has taught us that patience is key. We expected this project to be fast paced and finished quickly, however, we are 5 weeks into it and have hit roadbumps and been stalled. We aren't where we expected to be when we began the project, but we have adjusted and changed the plan. From email communications to waiting for seeds to grow, we are making adjustments. This project may be going slow, but the end product will be a visual representation of the world becoming more sustainable in new and creative ways.

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.

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.