Learning how to grow food engages culinary students and harvests real-world science in this featured project.
In an age of environmental unpredictability and rising cost of living one thing not being discussed enough is self-sustainability. Understanding how to grow and prepare one’s own food is an incredible life skill to develop, regardless of one’s chosen profession. This is something that Michael Kosko and the educators at Al Raby School for Community and Environment, Chicago, IL are taking on right now through their program “Aquaponics: Growing Our Own Food Sustainably.” By teaching students how to grow their own herbs and vegetables, alongside certain types of fish they are hoping to create a program that produces students mindful about their environment and who can also cook up a decent, healthy filet of fish. This program will also provide students with the opportunity to explore issues of food justice and food deserts which many students experience within their communities.
— Michael Kosko (@MrKosko) January 25, 2015
Recipe for Success
This project is unique to the Chicago area. While there are many culinary and horticulture/agriculture programs in the city, Al Raby will be the first to combine these two types of programs into one. The Office of CTE (career and technical education) Programs provided equipment for the culinary lab. In the grow lab, students will grow salad greens, kale, and various herbs while taking care of tilapia and koi. Eventually, this program is looking to partner with local businesses to sell the student harvest. In the classroom, students will study the life cycles of plants and fish and the optimal way to grow both. Since this class will be heavily rooted in the scientific method and student inquiry, students will also study how different variables affect plant growth including temperature, light intensity, nutrient/chemical levels, water quality, diseases, and aquatic pests. And since no pesticides or synthetic fertilizers are used, all produce grown in the lab is classified as organic according to the USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) definition.
Building a Grow Lab and Disseminating Learning
Ultimately, the goal of the project was to build out a grow lab in the school to support their preexisting culinary/food science career and technical education (CTE) program when those classes began in September 2016. Accomplishing that meant getting the grow lab up and running, which they did, leading to a bountiful harvest in May. Students who took the vegetables home came back with rave reviews from family and friends.
Currently they are working with the Garfield Park Conservatory, to create a teen docent program made up exclusively of Al Raby culinary students. Fifteen of their freshmen students interviewed for ten spots on the inaugural docent team. During the summer, these students work to create educational experiences for area elementary students and during the school year they will be released from their culinary classes once a month to lead tours for second and third graders.
Along with those benefits, this past summer the selected students ran experiments in the grow lab with Akilah Henderson, the Student Engagement Coordinator at the Conservatory. Under Akilah’s guidance the students will tracked the growth of crops on the conservatory’s farm and in the lab, building on the Botany students’ work from the past semester.
Meeting Challenges and Planning for the Future
They were not without difficulties. Unfortunately they discovered too late that the district requires schools to obtain special permission to raise fish. Because of this, the first round in the lab had to do without the fish. But David Blackmon, the program coordinator for all the culinary CTE programs throughout the district, toured the lab earlier in the month and is working with central office to obtain permission for Al Raby to start raising tilapia and koi next school year. Fortuitously, fish can easily be added to the current units in the lab with no modifications once permission is obtained.
Regardless of the fish-hiccups it sounds like the students and educators at Al Raby are off to a great start. It sounds like before long they’ll be swimming in so much fish and so many vegetables they’ll have have trouble giving them away!
Plans for a dinner for district leaders and community stakeholders are in the works to share the success and help others savor the impact of the project.
- Nonprofit hopes to spread aquaponic farming to schools across the country (PBS)
- Aquaponics STEM Food Growing Systems in the Classroom (Aquaponics USA)
- Classroom Gardening: Hydroponics or Aquaponics (Bright Agrotech)
- Aquaponics Education for Schools | Systems & Curriculum (Ecolife Conservation)
Science, inquiry, project-based learning, and relevance take center stage in STARS.
At a time of such ecological uncertainty, when some of our greatest minds have given us 1000 years as a species until extinction, one thing is abundantly clear: the study of celestial bodies, near and far, has never been more important. And while 1000 years may be a bit far off to even comprehend, it behooves us to broaden our understanding of our neighboring planets in stars in hopes that when the time comes for us to leave our terrestrial trappings behind, we’re ready.
This is exactly what educators at George West High School have been working on for the past two years with their innovative STARS (South Texas Astronomical Research for Students) program.
“It has widely been assumed that scientific research and especially astronomical research was an endeavor to be pursued at the university level, and even then primarily by graduate students, certainly not at the high school level. STARS challenges that notion.”
Research Ranch Cultivates Learning
STARS is not limited to astronomy. At Research Ranch, tiny ranch by Texas standards of only 34 acres, introduces students to real research in the following fields of study:
- Solar energy to electricity conversion
- Materials engineering
- New techniques in ranching (the solar ranch)
According to the report, in the first two years of this project all the areas above demonstrated tremendous progress in regards to research. Current efforts continue to focus the project primarily on astronomy, materials engineering, and solar energy.
A Converted Marching Band Trailer becomes a Mobile Astronomical Observatory
One of the most exciting developments of the past year was the STARS observatory telescope coming fully online to fully begin the program. It’s housed in the Mobile Astronomical Observatory, an 8 by 16 foot, 30-year-old converted marching band trailer.
This year saw the final steps of the transformation into a scientific research facility. Even receiving a brand new coat of paint and its official logo as the school year began.
The mobile observatory is divided into a control room and telescope room section. Most of the student researcher’s time is spent in the control room which is climate controlled.
The primary instrument used this year with the telescope was the thermoelectrically cooled CCD camera that could be used to take timed exposures of the heavens as well as make measurements of star brightness at a variety of wavelengths. This opens the possibility of making measurements of color and surface temperature of stars or the shapes and rotational periods of asteroids. The student operators, CCD camera and main telescope are shown in the slideshow below.
Rocketry Club Qualifies for National Competition
The observatory isn’t the only thing to be excited about. An unexpected offshoot of the astronomy program has been a new rocketry program. Interest in the mobile observatory inevitably led to an interest in all things space, and it led students to pursue the Team America Rocketry Challenge. Two teams from George West High School participated in this nationwide competition. The challenge was to build a rocket that would carry two raw hen eggs to an altitude of exactly 850 feet and return them to the ground undamaged in a flight time between 44 and 46 seconds. This is a most difficult task and one of the two teams (Cloud 9) qualified for the national competition.
Solar Voltaic Arrays Support Real World Agricultural Inquiry
The solar ranch is another reason to celebrate this program. Junior Ryan Repka has been working on two different designs for photovoltaic arrays. The first one is the semi-active array. The first panel will be finished before the end of the school year and will be installed during the summer of 2016 with the entire photovoltaic array to be completed during the fall 2016 semester. At that point, Ryan will begin a semester long study as to the best ways to maximize efficiency, from panel positioning to water cooling of the panels.
Through repositioning of photovoltaic arrays as part of the STARS research project, an additional 15-20% solar power efficiency can be realized.While this project exceeds expectations for high school students, it continues to expand student learning opportunities.
In terms of agricultural and ecological research, the project is just beginning to make progress. In fact, an intriguing future project is taking shape. Not far from the observatory site and solar ranch, the first trees of a citrus orchard have been planted. The observatory site is a bit north of the main citrus growing region of Texas. Being on a hill out of areas of cold sinking air help, but this area is subject to serious killing frosts about one year in four. To combat this problem, the students and educators plan to develop what they are calling a microwave defroster. This system could be used to prevent frost damage on citrus but would be even more useful on more sensitive winter vegetables such as lettuce. They plan to initiate a pilot project for this device no later than the winter of 2018.
It truly is an exciting time to be a student or a teacher participating in the STARS program at George West High School. There’s something very powerful about teaching and learning while simultaneously working for a better future for all humans.