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Vermicomposting at Columbia Heights

The following blog post was written by Columbia Heights 2019 Summer Internship Team: Mary Clare O'Shea, Anteneh Zelalem, George Bonete Quintero, and Robbie Creadick.


This summer, the Columbia Heights internship team has been working with the students at the Columbia Heights summer recreation program. Every week we strive to facilitate an engaging experience for students that will inspire them to live more sustainably. We do this by focusing each of our lessons on one of the “5 Es of Sustainability” (economics, education, equity, environment, empowerment). Then, we include a hands on activity such as building mini aquaponics systems or engineering from recycled materials. 

Last Friday, our E of the day was education. We began by teaching students the important role education plays in empowering people to better care for the planet. Many have no idea where their trash goes after throwing it away. Others believe that throwing away organic matter is environmentally friendly because it will decompose. Education is the key to curbing these misconceptions. Breaking down and re-purposing trash so it does not wind up in a landfill is integral to a healthy planet.

What better way to demonstrate this to students than vermicomposting?


Our two black bins of vermicompost sitting mysteriously on the tables prompted nonstop questions about what was inside. Once we finally cracked them open no one was disappointed by the boxes of dirt, worms and garbage. Students happily picked up shovels and began exploring the contents of the bins. At first, many were grossed out by the small wiggly red worms but they eventually warmed up to them. After discussing how the worms turn the musty smelling mixture of microgreens, wood shavings, and paper scraps into organic fertilizer, students were each given a plastic baggie to create their own vermicompost environment. Each student picked out two or three worms and were sure to name them before they placed them in their vermicompost home. Many started to ask in bewilderment how it was possible for tiny creatures like John and Spiderman to convert heaping piles of garbage into pounds of organic fertilizer. In the end, building their own mini vermicompost compelled students to appreciate the composting power of the worms and their potential as a solution for a greener future. 

Robbie: “As someone who wants to be a teacher when they grow up, this has been an extremely helpful and memorable experience. It’s amazing to see the kids build friendships with each other while also learning important things that can make the world a more sustainable place like vermicomposting.”

George: “The kids had fun writing facts about their worms and naming them in the vermicomposting activity we were doing, It was funny how three kids named all their worms ‘John’, it's nice seeing how happy and interested they are on the lessons we plan and the different activities they do to help them better understand the lesson of the day.”

Anteneh: “I think that the kids really enjoyed the vermicomposting and the video we showed them. Overall i think the kids had a fun and enjoyable time in the classroom.”

Emma: “This internship has given me my first experience teaching in a classroom. I've learned a lot from being in a situation where I'm not completely comfortable, and also from the other team members. Also, it's really fun teaching in a hands-on way!”

Fostering a Culture of Inquiry, Changing the World

Fostering a Culture of Inquiry, Changing the World

The following blog post was written by Carley Rice, Lead Sustainability Educator, on our Spark-Y program partnership with Community School of Excellence

The students at Community School of Excellence are lots of things, but if they are one thing, they are truly excellent. This group of fifth grade students shocks and inspires me with their innate curiosity and deep rooted LOVE for learning. Leading them on a small portion of their education journey this year has been a true honor. As I part ways with my students for the summer I reflect on the lessons they have taught me, about education, about children, and about the future of a planet in peril.

We started off the year asking lots of questions: What is sustainability? How can we live more sustainably? How can we treat our planet better? How can we treat each other better?

I think that starting off the year with open inquiry and dialogue set us up for success. Too often young people are afraid to ask questions. Maybe adults in their life discredit their opinions. Maybe they’ve been shut down by others. Maybe they don’t feel that their thoughts are valuable.

This has to change.

Creating a culture of inquiry is one of my top priorities as an educator. How can we expect children to learn and grow if they don’t ask questions?

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This year our fifth graders at CSE used power tools to build garden beds and aquaponics systems, cared for fish, grew plants, experimented with pH, and even solved engineering challenges. Throughout all of these activities they were encouraged and pushed to think critically, be creative, and ask questions. Many of these activities were new for our students and pushed them out of their comfort zones. It’s not everyday that you see a 10-year-old child successfully use a chop saw. These activities wouldn’t be possible without a group of open-minded, eager, curious young learners. Working with students like these makes my job as an educator pretty easy. CSE is a school that takes its time with students to ensure everyone feels included, heard, and important. Not all students in our city are so lucky. At Spark-Y we make it our mission and our priority to reach those students who are under-served and at-risk.

The question that is constantly on my mind as an educator is this: Why does the traditional education system fail so many young people? How can we reach these students?

I think these are questions that you could spend a lifetime considering and trying to solve. Right now, I think the answer has to do with empowerment. Too many students don’t believe in their own power. They’ve never been told that they CAN, in fact, do anything. They haven’t been given the opportunities, skill sets, and guidance to reach their potential. Their thoughts, opinions, and ideas have been ignored. Their voices have been silenced. If we can target this issue maybe we can begin to reach all students, not just the top 5-10%. I think this begins with communication. Students need to feel heard. But, before they can feel comfortable opening up and sharing they need to feel respected, safe, and trusted.

Every week at CSE students were presented with a challenge that is currently facing our world. Topics such as waste, water consumption, pollution, inequity, food deserts, and climate change were introduced and discussed. Some may think that these topics are “too big,” or “too daunting” for young minds. I disagree. I think that by trusting our youth with these ideas and challenges we are showing them that we respect them, that we need their help, and that we fully believe in their abilities. It is their generation that will turn our climate crisis around. Why wait till they are adults to present these ideas? This approach lets students know that we trust them, and that it’s okay to share their opinions. Young people just want to feel like adults actually see them, hear them, and understand them.


Our work at CSE this year was a great example of this. These 10 and 11 year old students not only were able to grasp big, complicated concepts, but they were able to articulate their thoughts and even brainstorm potential solutions. It’s amazing what children are capable of when they are in an empowering environment that cultivates curiosity, critical thinking, and inquiry.

A few weeks ago I had a student ask me why earthworms come out of the ground after a rainstorm. I told him that that’s such a great question, and then asked him to find the answer for me and report back next week. As soon as I walked into the classroom the following week he came up to me with a piece of notebook paper and presented his findings. It’s simple, small moments like this that reassure me that our approach is working. Children are innately curious. It’s up to us to keep that fire ignited and do our best to never let it burn out.

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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.


Why Hands-On Building Matters

Why Hands-On Building Matters

As a Spark-Y staff member working primarily in the office, I experience most of our programs second-hand through our capable education facilitators. This week, however, I was thrilled to leave my desk and computer for a day and join Hill-Murray School’s eighth grade class’ vermicompost system build.

The vermicompost system, which will use worms to compost the cafeteria’s food waste, was designed and prepped by Spark-Y’s Operations Director, Sam, and assembled almost entirely by students. Eighth graders worked in teams to make measurements, cut planks, drill holes, and put the system together—often participating in construction for the first time ever. Students obviously love the break in routine a build day offers, but for an eighth grader, building something during the school day isn’t just an excuse to ditch the classroom and spend time outside. It’s a deeply impactful and empowering learning experience.

At the build students demonstrated the benefits of hands-on learning over and over again. One eighth grader, reluctant to try using a power tool, stood at the back of her group and told me she was scared of the saw. I coaxed her over, and timidly the student marked her measurement, lined up the wood plank, made the cut, and looked up grinning. She asked, “Can I do another one? That was so fun!” She performed the next cut confidently and without fear, wearing a big smile the entire time.

Another student explained to me that she couldn’t help with measurements because she’s “bad at math.” We did the first measurement together and thirty minutes later she was still at the measuring table telling a friend, “I love making measurements! I’m so good at it!” This student, who didn’t think she was good at math, spent 45 minutes calculating measurements and feeling valued, smart, and capable.

When students build things with Spark-Y they face fears with confidence and determination. They learn the meaning of “I can do it” and “I’m good at this.” They learn what empowerment felt like while making their school a more sustainable campus. The best part of all that learning: the students have fun while doing it! And that’s what Spark-Y is all about!