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hands-on learning

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.




Columbia Heights Launch and Smooth 80’s Jams

Columbia Heights Launch and Smooth 80’s Jams

The following blog post was written by Wolid Ahmed, Education Facilitator / Americorps:

About the program:


Columbia Heights High School (CHHS) are one of the newer Sparky programs in the 2017-2018 school year. Our big-picture goal is to empower high school students through student-led design, planning, and build of an aquaponics system.

CHHS is an after-school program, allowing our curriculum to be more flexible. The students we serve in this program already have a little background in agriculture with their own school farm on campus.

We've had a great start to the program school year and we're looking forward to keeping it going.


Spark-Y days at CHHS:

Coming in as an education facilitator at Spark-Y was a little daunting. There is a lot riding on us doing well. We are expected to help lead these young minds to be empowered, live sustainably, and then pass that forward to others. So I was really nervous about it all, but I didn't need to be nervous at all. From the start, these students were amped about aquaponics - and in particular fish!!!

Two students were already well-versed in fish and fish care, and had already began debating on the types of fish the aquaponics system should have. CHHS students were ready-to-go, energized to learn as much as possible.

To begin, we started by outlining our expectations and goals for the program in the coming year, in the spirit of collaborative conversation. We felt that was necessary to empower these young adults to have a say in what they want to learn about.

Since this is a once-a-week program for three hours, we provide as much information to the students as possible on program days. To kick-off the education, we presented information on nitrogen cycles. Then, slowly building up to learning about structural design by exploring with popsicle sticks. Students were really good at meeting expectations, and with a little encouragement, were willing to stretch their thinking outside-the-box.


My fellow facilitator, Becca, and I had them practice systems design. We created design drivers to help them think more outside-the-lines. We put time limits on designs, as they stretched into areas of new thinking, individually and in groups.

The whole class was really chill and wanted to be there doing the projects. Becca was the MC and played her favorite hits from the 80's and 90's.

The design date for a full-scale aquaponics system needed to be pushed back, so we put together hands-on projects to jumpstart the group. This resulted in a mini aquaponics system assembly project, with student-designed lighting systems to provide light for the plants in the system. The students were the ones running the ship. They worked together in assembling and then designing and pitching their design to the other students in the class and voting on who's was more structurally sound. Some of the students were really detailed in there design of the light fixture. Everyone was getting in on the cutting of the PVC and assembly of it. Students that didn't like to talk much were engaged and were really enjoying the process.


CHHS System Design and Build

A few weeks later, students would get to design a larger system for their school. The youth had a lot of say in the process, including mocking up designs for our Operations Director, Sam Menzies. Sam would mash a lot of their ideas together to create a sound structure conceptualized by students.

Once we had the design finalized with the students, it was off to the build.

We've had two builds with the students so far and both we very productive.  Everyone was excited about the build.

We set up the stations for cutting and drilling the lumber. Becca was the designated MC again, playing “Africa” by TOTO and Sam air played every instrument, with me lip-syncing “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas to myself.

The builds were fun and upbeat.  We didn't have a shortage of work to do and every student was eager to start the tasks needed.

Thus far, we have finished about 1/3 of the build. So that means the build will likely head into the second semester, with more students to potentially sign up for the program. I think the students really enjoyed being there and had a blast doing activities you normally wouldn’t be doing in a school setting: ideating, designing, building, and learning… and all while enjoying those smooth 80’s jams.

Elementary Youth Launch and Grow

Elementary Youth Launch and Grow

The following blog post was written by Becca Ward, 
Spark-Y Education Facilitator

Program Overview: 
Fall 2017 marked the start of the Spark-Y / Pillsbury Elementary partnership and the completion of the Spark-Y pathway in Northeast Minneapolis.  In partnering with Pillsbury, Spark-Y now brings hands-on learning experiences to all levels of Northeast public schools.  Unlike most first year programs, Pillsbury is a condensed program, with only six workshops and a build day throughout the academic year.  Our primary goal at Pillsbury is to help forty 4th graders build their first aquaponic system, facilitating an authentic learning experience around the life sciences, urban farming, and sustainability.

Pillsbury Program Launch:
As this is our inaugural year at Pillsbury, our priority was to build an aquaponic system with our two 4th grade classes.  However, unlike most first year programs, we only have six workshops and a build day, meaning there was no time to waste and every minute of programming has to count.  So after just one workshop to introduce the idea of aquaponics, six Spark-Y staff, two teachers, and forty 4th graders built an aquaponics system.

The kiddos had an amazing time.  Some of them were excited to tell us and their classmates how much they already knew about power tools, barely waiting to be called on to share their knowledge.  Others were very unsure whether they had the guts to use the saw or drill or even walk up the few short steps of the ladder, citing a fear of heights.  But by the end of the day, even the most tentative students were reaching to the top of the system, drill in hand, to put the final screws in place.  Exciting transformations happened that day.  A pile of lumber became an aquaponics system and forty 10 year olds became carpenters.

With the system in place, we turned our attention to launching and caring for the plants and fish.  Students planted cuttings of longevity spinach and voted on which seeds to plant.  They painted leaves and fish on their system, proving to be efficient if not perfectionistic artists.  Regardless, the color brought life to the system and the message that it was student built and cared for.  We brought in a guest goldfish for them to observe.  He was an instant success, primarily because of his digestive efficiency.  Students were shocked by the enormity of his excrement.  Cassidy, a Spark-Y intern who was facilitating the station, said the students at first insisted that it could not possibly be poo because it was TOO BIG.  They suggested names and have since checked in with us to make sure he was still doing well (he is).       


With three very successful visits under our belts, we went into the fourth workshop with the goal of teaching the students about the all-important nitrogen cycle and water testing.  It’s a big goal to teach 10 year olds about a process that includes microscopic bacteria and chemicals they’ve never heard of before.  The day fell flat.  At the end of the two classes, it was unclear if the students had absorbed anything and we hadn’t even covered the maintenance schedule we had prepared.  Wolid and I lamented the loss of a day, deciding that we had best repeat the lesson to make sure they understood the nitrogen cycle and water testing.

So Wolid repeated a lesson on the nitrogen cycle, while Abby, another Spark-Y intern, helped students make observations on their new tilapia and growing seedlings and I walked students through water testing again.  The day went amazing.  Students with home aquariums asked if they should be testing their water at home or putting plants in with their fish.  Another student’s eyes widened at the chemicals and beamed when I described them as little chemists.  And best of all, over the hubbub of twenty chattering students, I heard Wolid ask a group of students what they remembered about the nitrogen cycle.  To both our surprise and delight, students shouted out answers. AMMONIA!  BACTERIA!  How on earth had they remembered that?  Wolid thought they hadn’t learned a thing two weeks ago.  And yet, here they were, recalling the major players of a complex cycle.  We definitely had underestimated these students.  

Now knowing that the students can make thoughtful observations on their plants and fish, name the components of the nitrogen cycle, and water test, we can confidently pass off the care of the system.  With their enthusiasm and intelligence, we cannot wait to see how their system will thrive over the next few months and are looking forward to seeing them again next semester!


Hands-on Learning & Fun, Build Days at CSE

Hands-on Learning & Fun, Build Days at CSE

The following blog post was written by Krista Martinka, a Spark-Y Education Facilitator, sharing her experience on a build day with one of our school partners.

About the Program:

The Community School of Excellence (CSE) is a K-8 Hmong Language and Culture School with whom we have kicked off our pilot year this school year. Spark-Y is working on a vermicomposting & waste curriculum with a second grade class, as well as an aquaponics curriculum with two fifth grade classes. Our goal is to incorporate as much of the CSE literacy-focused curriculum into our programming as possible, but also to expose the students to hands-on science education. We’ve had a very successful start to the year and we can’t wait to continue this partnership.


Build Day at CSE

It’s almost impossible not to have a good time at a school where the kids are excited to learn. You could say pretty much anything and expect a positive response…


“Do you guys want to learn about dirt?”

“ Yeah!”

“What about fish poop?”


And that’s exactly what we get at the Community School of Excellence. It’s always a great feeling to go into a school and know they want to be there and they want to learn.

What’s better than enjoying yourself as a facilitator? Knowing that the students had just as much fun, maybe more, than you did.

Within the past couple of months we’ve completed three builds with the students at CSE - one in each class that we’ve been working with. Preparing for these builds is a lot of work, and takes a lot of time, but all of that effort is worth it when you see students learning and having fun at the same time. These moments are clear when you see a student use a drill for the first time.  Especially a student who was afraid of a saw, and builds the confidence to use it anyway. It's clear watching their faces light up as they bring their system to life.


There were plenty of examples of this, scattered across each build day.  Such as with a group of second graders. We were building a vermicompostiing system.  A system where waste is broken down by worms to create a very nutrient-rich fertilizer for plants. The pieces had been cut for the system, and ready to be assembled. Some students couldn’t wait to get their hands on a drill, and others were a little cautious. But, the end of the day everyone had used the drill at least once.

“My dad is going to be so proud of me!” was a statement I’d heard from across the room.

Another student exclaimed: “I want to do construction all the time!”



CSE second graders with their vermicompost system.

When working with the fifth graders, we asked what their favorite part of the build day was. We received a few different answers. Some really enjoyed the cutting station and using the saw, others preferred the stations where they got to learn a little bit more about how aquaponics works, but most of the students couldn’t even choose. “Everything!” was the response that we got most often.

I know where these students are coming from because it is really hard to pick your favorite part of a build day. There is so much to choose from!

However, there is one moment during the builds at CSE that really stuck out to me. Working with the fifth graders and explaining the build day to the group, one student asked if the class was going to have to miss recess.  Builds can take a full day, and this one was no different.  I broke the news that they would be missing recess and there were a few frowns around the room.

Trying to keep the spirit light we told them they wouldn’t even want to go to recess because they’d be having so much fun.

So what happened when a group of fellow classmates were in the hallway, putting on jackets for recess?

Not a word, not even a glance at the door from a single student. 

Recess was happening right in the classroom, while students were learning to build, design and use power tools (while facing their fears). Build days are hands-on learning at its best. And just like these group of fifth graders discovered, you have even more fun on a build day than at recess. And the fun lasts all day.