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Sparking Wonderment: A Summer of Hands-On Workshops

Sparking Wonderment: A Summer of Hands-On Workshops

The following blog post was written by Sydney Burrell, Amal Ismail, Cole Frazier, and Dhairya Gupta - the 2019 Summer Internship Library Workshops Team.

We are the Spark-Y Library Workshop Internship Team. Our task over the seven weeks of our summer internship was to prepare materials and presentations for workshops that we would then teach at various library locations around the Twin Cities. The workshops were designed to educate youth about science and sustainability through hands on experiences.


“Hello, I’m Rose, I’m the team lead for the Library Workshop Team. I’m a Junior at the University of Minnesota with a Food Systems major with minors in Horticulture and Sustainability. I’m also blind. I have a lot of experience working with blind youth and other youth. My studies in college are what brought me to Spark-Y because of its leadership in the community for education in sustainability. As team lead, I create short- and long-term objectives for the team, keep all team members focused and productive, make sure deadlines are met, and ensure that we are all prepared for presenting our workshops.”

“Hey! I’m Dhairya, I’m the operations manager for the Library Workshop Team. I’m currently on my way to become a freshman at Wayzata High School. I applied as an intern for Spark-Y because my school at the time, Wayzata Central Middle School, had an Aquaponics club that got me interested in sustainability. When the club had a field trip to Spark-Y, I was astounded by the impact they had on communities and the environment. So, I wanted to be a part of their continued effort in making our communities more sustainable and less non-renewable resource dependent. As operations manager, my job is to organize materials, help with creating and editing our curriculum, and assist with creating and following our budget.”

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“Hi, I’m Cole, I’m the head of communications for the Library Workshop team. I’m on my way to becoming a freshman at Wayzata High School. I applied to become an intern at Spark-Y after I learned about Spark-Y while I was on a field trip with my school aquaponics club. This coupled with my interest in science, technology, math, and trying to grow a sustainable future drew me to Spark-Y. I enjoyed the hands-on experience that Spark-Y introduced me to and the positive impact that Spark-Y has on the community around it. Being head of communications, I have various tasks. These tasks include outreach to local libraries and other teams here at Spark-Y.”

“I’m Cece, the staff who gets to hang out with this awesome team! I’m really excited that we’ve got interns leading these hands-on workshops in our community’s libraries, reaching a much broader audience than we’re able to access through our school year programs.”


Our first workshop was held at Franklin Library in Minneapolis on July 10th. We presented the “Hydraulic Tentacle” workshop. Using cardboard, a tube, two plastic syringes, and the power of pressurized water, we taught around 25 youth how to create their very own hydraulic machines. Some of the kids crafted awesome replicas of our models such as the basic tentacle, the wagging tail, and the claw. Others, however, crafted their own wonderful creations. There were bobbing dino heads, flapping wings, and snapping shark jaws. Each tube was filled with colored water that lent their creations the power of movement. There was so much creativity and excitement vibrating around the room during the whole hour of the workshop, and everyone got to bring home their living sculptures.

“As soon as the presentation was over and everyone began building, the room became a whirlwind of activity. There was never a lull in the action,” Rose remarked.

“I’m a man of few words,” said Cole, “Energizing is all I have to say about that workshop.”

“Beautiful madness,” Cece described dreamily.

Dhairya was at a loss of words, “I don’t know… Chaotic maybe? But also, enjoyable.”

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Our second workshop was at Columbia Heights Public Library on July 18th. Our workshop that day was all about aquaponics. The participants were older this time, high school age students, and it was a little difficult to get them excited and involved at first. However, after we set them up with the PVC to construct their own aquaponic structures, they all started opening up. In groups of five, the teens crafted their frames, placed their grow beds and tanks inside it, and attached the pumps. After some critical thinking and problem solving, both teams got everything put together with their pumps cycling water. To finish it off, we had everyone taste some Spark-Y grown pea microgreens. By the end, everyone was talking, laughing, and asking questions.

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“They were some really bright kids. They were finishing faster than we had expected,” Rose said in wonderment.

Dhairya knew exactly how he felt this time, “It was really fun working with teens. It was so exciting watching them succeed.”

Cole had many more words to say this time too, “At first, I was nervous, but got more comfortable as the teenagers attending became more comfortable. I feel like they really enjoyed it.”

“The kids were shy at first,” Cece explained, “but became excited once they were faced with a challenge.”

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The final workshop project was actually 6 workshops performed over a 3-day STEAM camp at the Columbia Heights Public Library. The kids that attended were from grades 3 to 6. We used the hydraulic tentacle and aquaponic workshops again since they were such big hits before. These kids ended up building their aquaponics system faster than the teenagers from the last workshop did! The other workshops were a strawberry DNA extraction workshop, a Mycology workshop learning about growing mushrooms, a spectrometer workshop focused on light, and an LED origami workshop making some beautiful origami flowers. Every workshop had something for the kids to take home. With 2 workshops a day, each kid had at least 2 mementos to take with them from the camp. Some kids came more than one day, some came all three, but we always had new faces too.

Dhairya said that, “It was great to see so many kids return every day, excited to learn… They really seemed to enjoy themselves, and I’m proud of that.”

“It was a really different experience working with some of the same kids every day. We played a game each day to learn everyone’s names and get everyone comfortable with one another,” Rose explained.

“I learned more from the kids than I did from Cece!” Cole remarked, chuckling, “Just kidding, though the kids did have some crazy ideas.” Luckily, crazy ideas are exactly what we need to create a more sustainable future.”

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.

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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.