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How Hands-On Curriculums Cater to Different Learning Styles

How Hands-On Curriculums Cater to Different Learning Styles

The following blog post was contributed by established education blogger, Alyssa Abel.


In the evolving world of education and youth instruction, it’s becoming more important than ever to incorporate newer, better learning — to keep youth engaged, promote personalized learning and contribute to a more successful education system.

When it comes to offering an engaging experience across subjects and school levels, hands-on education systems are what we need to re-engage students in a time too tied with technology. Whether it’s through classroom-based models, hands-on labs or out-of-school experiences, experiential education programs like those offered at Spark-Y do more than enable youth empowerment — they bridge the gap and offer value for every learning style.

Here’s how hands-on learning is effective and revolutionary for all learners:

1. Hands-On Learning Engages Tactile Learners

When it comes to traditional classroom instruction or lecture-based educational programming, tactile learners are at a disadvantage. They’re not engaged by listening — they’re engaged by doing.

Children with a kinesthetic learning style quickly and permanently learn what they do in and out of the classroom, which is why schools and youth programming alike should employ more hands-on learning methods over classic instruction or technology-based models.

2. Hands-On Learning Offers Cultural Exposure

In a traditional classroom environment, students sit side by side, encouraged to engage with a static lecture or presentation — but not necessarily encouraged to engage with each other. Classrooms and youth-centered programs comprise students of so many different backgrounds, cultures and experiences. In this evolving social age, exposing children to diversity is more important than ever, but standard classroom methods may not be the most conducive to real exposure.

From a young age, cultural exchanges and educational experiences are essential to youth development, but not every family is able to offer their children the enriching experience of cultural exchange environments. In hands-on environments like Spark-Y’s in-school programs, internships and urban agriculture labs, children are able to interact and work directly with each other, exposing them to a variety of backgrounds — no matter what they’re studying.

While cultural exposure isn’t the focal point of a hands-on curriculum, it’s an inevitable benefit. Through these tactile educational experiences, youth participants gain a deeper understanding of the world — and of each other.


Spark-Y program youth visit the Urban Ag Lab at Casket Arts headquarters to tour the microgreens growing tower and DIY Bio Lab.

3. Hands-On Activities Provide Experiential Learning Opportunities

Many educators treat experiential learning like a side dish instead of the main course. But experiential learning gets all students engaged because it focuses on building knowledge through what students do and observe. Traditional lectures engage only a small number of students, while experiential learning demands youth take ownership of their educational experience.

At Spark-Y, for example, educators like Cecelia Watkins facilitate unique hands-on learning experiences that offer students the physical context and personal investment to drive learning concepts home. Through unique “Action Lab” stations during Spark-Y’s annual harvest celebrations, students from partner schools are offered the unique opportunity to put their agricultural education into direct practice.

After spending months sustainably cultivating and growing food through hands-on aquaponics systems, students are assigned relevant, real-world tasks — like making guacamole with their own supply of cilantro or harvesting kale for kale chips. When the main course is experiential education, students are poised to taste more success.

As Watkins asserts, “independent, experiential learning” is the goal — and it makes all the difference. “Having a purpose and some autonomy about how to achieve it deeply engages students of all ability levels and age ranges,” she says. The result? Indelible learning outcomes.

4. Hands-On Curriculums Encourage Cognitive Development and Collaboration

When students engage in activities that require movement, talking and listening, it activates different brain regions, boosting cognitive development. Even for auditory learners, listening to a lecture only stimulates one or two brain areas.

Additionally, hands-on activities enable students to collaborate directly with their peers. Children learn best when they discuss what they've learned with others — the act of verbalizing their ideas helps cement them. Furthermore, students who don't understand an instructor's explanation of the material sometimes grasp it when they can work with other students to see the results.

5. Educators Have More Time to Individualize Instruction

Some students struggle with written or verbal language applications. Others wrestle with inductive and deductive reasoning. Regardless of the individual need, hands-on activities allow school and program leaders time to personalize instruction.

Teachers can create separate learning stations for different activities around their classroom, and assign students to small groups to complete these activities. In such an environment, teachers adopt a facilitator role, circulating the room and offering personalized advice. Students can spend additional time at stations designed to bolster skills they struggle with.

Inquiry Zone at Crossroads Elementary

Inquiry Zone at Crossroads Elementary

For example, a Spark-Y partner program at Crossroads Elementary offers students in hands-on engineering classes the opportunity to use their talents and applications to come up with real-life solutions for classroom challenges. In the “Inquiry Zone,” instructors encourage third- and fourth-graders to focus on brainstorming their own ideas in stations — for both tactile challenges like building floating boats with pennies and theoretical solutions like improving the classroom.

By encouraging all students to “feel comfortable facing problems and thinking of creative solutions,” says Spark-Y educator Gabrielle Anderson, this program provides each individual with “a unique space to play and experiment without being told their answer is right or wrong.”

6. Students Of All Learning Styles Benefit From Hands-On Challenges

Some students learn best when they work independently. For students with a solitary learning style, hands-on activities provide them time to immerse themselves in studies they feel passionate about. Because of the variety of ways in which students learn, instructors would do well to include hands-on activities that engage all the senses.

Spark-Y’s hands-on focus on sustainability, agriculture and entrepreneurship offers students of all learning styles the opportunity to thrive — with elements of collaboration, individual responsibility and full sensory immersion in each unique program.

Want to Improve Engagement and Classroom Management? Incorporate More Hands-On Activities

When it comes to challenging kids’ creativity, exposing them to enriching opportunities and expanding their capabilities, hands-on learning is the key. And when educators choose to integrate hands-on experiences and curriculums into their classrooms, they can do more than engage students of all learning styles — they can encourage and empower all students to exceed their potential.


About the Author

Alyssa Abel is an established education blogger with a special interest in new learning methodologies. Read more of her work for students and educators of all levels on Syllabusy.

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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Spark-Y 'On Fire' and In the News

Spark-Y 'On Fire' and In the News

Things have been heating up this summer here at Spark-Y, with awards, grants, and even a snippet of our organization on HBO.

The Latest and Greatest:

Spark-Y is featured in Minneapolis/St.Paul Business Journal for Minne Inno Award
We are the grateful recipients of a Minne Inno award, recognizing Twin Cities' startups that are blazing trails in technology and innovation. Spark-Y was awarded for innovation in Education and was subsequently in Minneapolis/St.Paul Business Journal - full article here.

Spark-Y recipient of major grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to fund Northeast Sustainability Hub
This grant will go towards the creation of a Northeast Sustainability Hub at our headquarters in The Casket Arts building. This project will include an expansion of our Urban Agriculture Lab into a farm surrounding the Casket Arts Building, including:

  • community farming zone to grow fresh, local produce, including raised garden beds

  • pollinators houses

  • composting

  • tools storage for outdoor work.

Through this project, we are empowering more community members, achieving a greater environmental impact, and strengthen our local economy.

In keeping with our self-sustaining model, the expansion will be naturally embedded into our operations — leveraging our established position as a community leader in education and sustainability to provide a new center for urban agricultural growth and discovery -- the Northeast Sustainability Hub.

HBO --- Wyatt Cenac's show, “Problem Areas,” came to Minneapolis to visit the Spark-Y Urban Agriculture Lab
Spark-Y’s microgreens timber-frame tower and Caitlin Barnhart, Spark-Y Urban Farm Manager, were featured in clips of the HBO show, “Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas.” HBO came to town to discuss health and school lunches and interview Minneapolis Public Schools Culinary and Wellness Director, Bertrand Weber, who connected show producers to Spark-Y through the youth in our Thomas Edison High School Program. This school program focuses on garden-to-cafeteria food, through an in-school aquaponics system and gardens combined with hands-on education for credit.

Staff and youth from Edison High School were filmed for for the day at our headquarters in the Casket Arts Building, an experience our youth were very excited about. You can watch the full episode here. And those microgreens Wyatt is staring so lovingly at? Yeah! That’s us!

Wyatt Cenac with Spark-Y staff and Edison youth.

Wyatt Cenac with Spark-Y staff and Edison youth.

Special thanks to our supporters, partners, and friends for sharing our work and helping us to continue our mission of youth empowerment!

Tangents, Passion, and Failure: Parting Words for Our 2019 Seniors

Tangents, Passion, and Failure: Parting Words for Our 2019 Seniors

The following farewell address was written by
Sarah Pilato, Spark-Y Sustainability Educator.

My job at Spark-Y allows me the privilege of spending a part of every day at Edison High School with many of our LEEF (Leadership, Entrepreneurship, Environment, Future) classes. LEEF was designed to be a pathway that Edison students can follow throughout their high school education that incorporates innovative and hands-on project-based learning. Students involved in this pathway get to explore the real world that exists far outside of their classroom and how they as individuals can have an impact on it.

Sarah Pilato with Edison High School Youth

Sarah Pilato with Edison High School Youth

Since I get to spend so much time with these students throughout the year, I have the opportunity to form very strong relationships with them and the end of the year is a very bittersweet experience. It is especially so for those that are seniors who will be graduating and not returning the following year.

If I am able to leave anything with my graduating seniors to take into their futures, I hope that it is these lessons from our time together:

Embrace life’s tangents

At this point in the year, many of my students have learned that they can very easily get me off on a tangent during class. I make myself and my classroom open to these spontaneous discussions because often times, I find that they happen when students are their most excited and engaged. During a garden planning exercise, a discussion about which crops are able to grow in Minnesota quickly turned into an all-out war over pineapple on pizza (it absolutely does belong, for the record). Another day began with students participating in nutrient testing but eventually ended with a passionate discussion about what the government is doing (or not doing) to regulate various types of pollution and how those students can make more drastic changes.

When my students ask me genuine and thoughtful questions, I am more than happy to share that knowledge with them. These tangent discussions became the space where my students did their best learning. They opened up their minds to new ideas, further cemented relationships with their classmates and teachers, and gained a deep sense of pride and ownership over something that may have been brand new to them.

I hope that my students take from these small classroom experiences, that when life throws an abrupt change of course at you, it may very well just be an opportunity to learn something new, have a new experience, or find a new passion.

Find something you’re passionate about in everything that you do.

I am very much a realist when it comes to my classes. Not every student is going to love every single activity, and I try to be upfront with them about that. My challenge to them in these instances, is to find a way to connect our current adventure to something that you are excited about. A great recent example of this came during our soil health unit from just a few days ago. I’ll be the first to admit that soil health and nutrient testing can come across a lot less glamorous than some of the other topics we get to cover in a year. One particular student couldn’t have cared less about the phosphorus levels in the garden soil but what he did care about was his “pizza garden”. We were able to have a great conversation about his hopes for this garden space - production of enough tomatoes and basil that he could use them in making his own pizza sauce - and how healthy growing plants would be impossible to get without first having healthy soil. Tying this seemingly boring activity back to something that this student already cared about and had taken ownership of, reinvigorated his interest in the soil testing.

I hope that my students take from these tiny challenges that life is worth being excited about. Not everything you do will necessarily be something you are deeply passionate about, but taking even those dull moments and flipping them around can ignite a new understanding or perspective you might not have considered before.

Failure is ahead of you. Don’t be afraid of it.

Failure is a thing that is going to happen to you. I’ve learned this lesson myself many, many times over and every time I learn it, it gets a little less scary. One of my goals for my classroom throughout the year is to create a “fail safe” environment. I want my students to come to class everyday not being afraid to try something new on the chance that it might not work out the way that they want it to, or worse, for fear that they will get a bad grade if it doesn’t.

During a bridge building competition (a stepping stone to our first major building project of the year), 2 of my students were becoming increasingly frustrated when the tactic they were trying kept resulting in broken popsicle sticks before their bridge was even completed. After resetting their minds a bit and making a few adjustments, they were able to improve their bridge’s weight-bearing capabilities. Another student attempted a fish breeding experiment that resulted in exactly 0 offspring being born. Reflecting with some of his classmates, he wrote a really powerful presentation on every possible source of error and has requested to try his experiment again next year, despite not even being enrolled in the class.

I hope that my students take from these experiences that instant success is not the only way to be successful. Failed attempts are opportunities to learn, grow, and persevere your way to a rewarding outcome.

Congratulations to the graduating seniors from the class of 2019! We at Spark-Y are all so proud of you!

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