Sophisticated Canadian classrooms feed students’ hunger for agricultural knowledge

On the first day of school a week, pupils in Steven Schultz’s high-school agriculture course in Lacombe, Alta., toured their greenhouse and edible gardens, harvesting gooseberries, cherries and grapes for a canning project. After college, the beekeeping club ran a postsummer hive inspection, harvesting 60 kilograms of honey from merely one of its threenbsp;hives.

These jobs are part of Lacombe Composite High School’s EcoVision Club, designed 13 years ago to inspire young leaders to make an environmental difference. Science instructor Schultz has been with the project since the start, when a student approached him afternbsp;course.

“She said, ‘We can discuss the environment until we are blue in the face, but unless we do it, it is sort of useless,'” he recalls. The club’s first job was a rooftop solar-panel system, which reduced the school’s energy usage by about 5 pernbsp;cent.

Every three years since, the team has taken on a new important project envisioned and researched by the pupils. The school’s commitment to the club is remarkable, especially considering that the challenges hands-on agricultural applications face in public schools. That a large proportion of Canada’s growing season falls during summer vacations is one barrier, but limited time and financial resources are more stubborn difficulties. The most passionate teachers often lack the background knowledge to handle such projects — and then there is thenbsp;bureaucracy.

“The toughest part, once they develop with their brilliant ideas, is telling them it is going to be about two decades of study, writing proposals and receiving permission,” Schultznbsp;states.

“You need to have licences, approval from various levels of government, administration and faculty boards and speak to our neighbours.” And still, the children have retained doingnbsp;it.

Similar hurdles face educators throughout the country who wish to educate children about the science, technology and business sides of agriculture, and of course how to grow their ownnbsp;meals.

In Toronto, Paul Taylor is the executive director of FoodShare, which eases public-school food and urban agriculture programs in addition to community food-security initiatives. It is independently run and financed, and committed to helping local schools conquer thesenbsp;problems.

“We are aware that teachers want to do this sort of thing — they need to engage children in this manner but do not always have this sort of experience, and there are all types of different demands on their time,” he says. “So we try to come in with our passion and expertise for thisnbsp;work{}”

Pupils have grown and harvested over 13,000 kilograms of produce on school lawns and rooftops through School Grown, FoodShare’s schoolyard gardening job. There is also a new pilot project, the fantastic Food Machine, which enables the most urban of youth to engage using aeroponics, mobile kitchen carts and electronic learningnbsp;tools.

Pupils are used to tend gardens throughout the summertime, in addition to market the produce they grow at farmers’ markets, which raises money to help hire morenbsp;pupils.

“We have been able to provide paid occupations for 125 high-school childhood and cover over $200,000 in salary over the last five decades,” Taylornbsp;says.

Selling the fruits of pupils’ labour also will help finance the Alpine Edibles program run from the Canadian Rockies Public Schools board in Alberta. There, gardening pro Christian Wright works with teachers to integrate edible gardens into various elements of itsnbsp;program.

Founded in Alberta, Lawrence Grassi Middle School at Canmore includes rooftop, yard and greenhouse gardens, even a chicken coop. These are outside, hands-on learning environments, but they are also real gardens — pupils harvest over 450 kilograms of produce, which can be used to provide their culinary class and marketed in a regional farmers’nbsp;marketplace.

“The lack of financing always affects programs which are extracurricular — it is becoming a challenge for each school division throughout the province,” says Christopher MacPhee, board superintendent.

“This is somewhat extracurricular, but it is not — it is utilized to improve the program, and act as our social outreach for the community. We scrounge for money to be certain these kinds of things continue tonbsp;occur.”

In Lacombe, the greatest EcoVision project to date has been the design and construction of a geodesic dome greenhouse in the field beside the school. “It’s tough to think of a tropical greenhouse that is energy efficient in the midst of Alberta,” Schultznbsp;states.

However, they did it: The greenhouse comprises geothermal- and – solar-energy systems and does not use any fossil fuels until the temperature drops to about -20 C. It was constructed in the fall of 2012 and each pupil in the school engaged in some manner, from installing panels and boards to shooting photographs and documenting thenbsp;procedure.

Indoors there are rows of vegetables and herbs and even a fruit-producing lemon tree, since each year the children experiment with a tropical plant. Pupils also had the idea to boost tilapia — a sort of freshwater whitefish — at the present water tank, used to regulate temperature within thenbsp;greenhouse.

They have since started a commercial aquaponics system, increasing up to 1,000 tilapia at one time, a few of which are served in the school cafeteria. The rest are given to a community group that volunteers with care of the greenhouse during the summer, offered to locals interested in supporting the project or contributed to the local foodnbsp;lender.

Grade 11 pupil Naomi Delisle a part of Lacombe’s newest project, an after-school beekeeping club named Bee Wise. “It provides you different life skills,” states Delisle, who looked forward to returning to college largely due to thenbsp;program.

“We provide demonstrations, which helps with our public speaking ability, and teaching others helps us learn a good deal better. I simply fell in love with the job — I feel like it has already inspired plenty of othernbsp;folks.”

Beyond the actual beekeeping, pupils build beehives and resorts, apply for grants and tend a pollinator garden, while they are mentored by a local apiarist. Bee Wise allows students to make high-school credits in addition to their beekeeping certificate through Olds College, the first such program innbsp;Canada.

Within Schultz’s classroom, Mason jars are lined on book shelves, each comprising a large, slimy SCOBY — a symbiotic culture of bacteria used to create effervescent fermented kombucha beverage. In a hallway with the cafeteria, an urban cultivator resembling a brightly colored refrigerator with glass doors homes rows of sprouts and microgreens.

Schultz turns every project into classes and classes so as to keep them moving, and sustainable. He tries to make certain each new job can be finished using a three-year time frame — the normal length of a high-schoolnbsp;pupil.

“Catch their fantasies in Grade 10 and help them fulfill their dreams — make them a reality — by Grade 12,” he says. “It is all about them — they donbsp;everything{}”

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

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