Worms the word for Sopris Elementary students | PostIndependent.com

Worms the word for Sopris Elementary students

Kelley Cox Post Independent

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – Fifth-grader Hannah Juul has no particular aversion to worms.

Sifting through a pile of dirt with some of her fellow Sopris Elementary School students next door at the Mountain Valley Developmental Services (MVDS) greenhouse, Juul digs up a smallish-size earthworm and gives it close inspection.

“They don’t bother me,” she says.

A couple of the other students are less inclined to handle the worms, but listen intently as teacher Mark Browning briefly explains how worms create fresh soil by breaking down food scraps and other decaying matter.

“He makes teaching time fun,” says Max Clancy, also a student in Browning’s fifth-grade class. “Like the paper airplanes we built this morning … he’s awesome.”

Juul has a special interest in the project at hand. Her dad, Adam Juul, is the greenhouse operations manager at MVDS, a non-profit human service organization that provides residential services and other programs for persons with developmental disabilities.

It’s through a partnership between Juul’s teacher and her dad that the group came to the greenhouse this particular day to start preparing for an exciting new science adventure.

Browning has been raising funds to set up a science experiment for his and other SES students this year. It will involve making worm compost and growing food that will ultimately be served in the school cafeteria.

Using vegetable scraps from the cafeteria, the students will mix the compost in bins set up at the MVDS greenhouse, and build garden beds to grow vegetables. The students will also be studying how plants grow in soil using the worm compost, compared to regular soil.

“We’ll find out if the worm compost yields a larger volume of fruit and vegetables,” Browning said. “The students will be drawing hypotheses and ultimately present their findings.”

Recently, Browning was awarded $10,000 toward the project from the Toyota TAPESTRY program. His was one of 50 grant recipients this year through the national program, which supports environmental science teaching.

Another $5,000 came from the Colorado Big Country Resource Conservation and Development fund, and Alpine Bank was among the first contributors last school year with a $500 grant.

To date, Browning has raised $17,500 toward the first phase of the project. He hopes to raise another $13,000, eventually including money through sales of the student-produced compost, to install a solar photovoltaic (PV) system that will run the heat exchange in the MVDS greenhouse.

“Right now they’re only using about a fifth of the space in the greenhouse,” Browning said. “We want to help them reduce those heating costs so more of the space can be used.”

For his students, the idea is to make science and the other subjects they’re learning “as interesting and engaging as possible,” Browning said, explaining that the composting and gardening project will be rolled into the comprehensive science curriculum at SES.

The idea to collaborate with MVDS grew out of a lunchroom chat a couple of years ago between some of Browning’s students, the Roaring Fork School District food service director and then-Glenwood Springs Mayor Bruce Christensen about healthy eating habits.

Christensen also happens to be the longtime executive director of MVDS, and offered the greenhouse space if Browning wanted to have his students grow food to serve as part of the school lunches.

“Everything has just been evolving from there, from a way to grow food for the cafeteria, to the idea for this compost experiment, to this great community project,” Browning said.

“I was sitting in my class with 20 kids and it just sort of clicked,” he said. “It’s a great chance for our kids and the clients at MVDS to connect and make new friends. The kids have such great energy, and this will be a way for them to share that with the people there.”

Beyond his own fifth-grade class, Browning is also working to get other teachers and other grade levels involved in the greenhouse project.

And, in case anyone thought that bit about a fifth-grade girl liking worms was a bit unusual, Juul admits she also likes her vegetables.

“I think greenhouse food is really good,” she said. “I can’t wait to see what the students at Sopris think of the vegetables we’ll bring over to the school once we get started.”

The project kicked off this week when Browning and his students started collecting vegetable scraps from the SES cafeteria – around 100 pounds a day worth. It will continue throughout the 2011-12 school year.

The Toyota TAPESTRY Grants for Science Teachers program has funded 1,197 community-based science education projects over the past 21 years, totaling $9.7 million.


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