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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.


Captains Program Reinvigorates Northeast Middle School

Captains Program Reinvigorates Northeast Middle School

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

Spark-Y is in its second year of programming at Northeast Middle School (NEMS), working weekly with seven classes of 7th graders.  Last year, students built an aquaponics system in their greenhouse and this year, students added two more systems to that space, maximizing their growing space with the goal of selling fresh, local produce to their cafeteria!  


NEMS Captains Set to Takeover Systems

This fall semester, we had an amazing time building the two new aquaponic systems at NEMS.  When we asked students what they enjoyed most about Spark-Y visits, many of them immediately referenced working with the power tools.  And I have to agree with them, there’s something special about building something and you just feel more powerful with a tool in your hand.  

Now that we have so much wonderful growing space, our priority is to help students get their systems thriving.  Unfortunately, it’s been a challenge.  While there are a handful of plants growing, 80% of their system isn’t producing.  With 175 students getting limited time with the system every other week, system care has been inconsistent at best.  To address this problem, we decided to start a Spark-Y captain program.  The captain program is a way for a few students to become more involved in the maintenance and care of the system, which will improve the consistency of care and hopefully improve the production of the system.  

To select captains, we helped students fill out applications as well as reflect on their strengths and how they can uniquely contribute to improving the system.  Ever the pessimist, I expected to get 5-10 exceptional applications out of the 175 we would receive.  Wonderfully, I was totally blown away by the enthusiasm and quality of the applications (#neverunderestimateyouth).  In fact, there were so many great applications that we decided to expand the program and develop more projects around business planning and system advertising.  I also have to mention that it was really uplifting to get solid applications from students who I had no idea were interested in the system.  

A few of my favorite excerpts from the applications: 

I would want to become captain because I want to change what my community looks like and to make my community healthy and clean.  If I become captain I would also want to help our communities trees and animals and help our nature to be healthy again.
I would be good at taking care of the fish because I love animals I like taking care of them and I think it would be cool to raise some fish for each classroom to have. I think that we could have a variety of plants to harvest and sell to the cafeteria.
I want to be a captain because I feel like I could find ways to improve our project. I also would like to be a captain to help in other ways such as making a website or being resourceful and looking at other ways to sell our products or planning it.
**I Really want to be a captin!**

Now that we’ve selected captains, during Spark-Y workshops, they will spend most of the hour working on the system, which has been split into seven sections so each group has a specific growing space that they are responsible for.  Captains will decide what to plant, record what and when they planted, and predict when they should germinate.  This way they can begin to quantify the success of the system and hopefully, identify what is necessary for successful plant growth.  Once the system is thriving, these students will take the lead on harvesting and selling produce to their cafeteria.  

Having spent a lot of time worrying about the health of the system, I was so reinvigorated by the enthusiasm in these applications and am excited for these students to take charge of their systems!  Also, if you’re wondering, for the students who are not captains, we’ve been working with them to develop projects that they are passionate about and will improve the school. Thus far, we have students who will be designing gardens, improving recycling in their school, and mentoring young students at Pillsbury Elementary!  

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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.