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Cedar Rapids students learn to help environment with ‘green teams,’ share lessons for Earth Day
Students will put on demonstrations to help mark Earth Day
CEDAR RAPIDS — Arthur Elementary School fourth-graders eat tomatoes fresh off the vine, grown in the classroom’s hydroponic garden — a method of growing plants without soil.
Over the past three years, Arthur Elementary has been able to purchase hydroponic gardens for almost every classroom — about 10 — as a part of the school’s green team efforts. Green teams are interactive, educational programs in Cedar Rapids schools that empower students and staff to help the environment through waste reduction, energy and water conservation and environmental education.
School leaders at Arthur Elementary originally wanted to have an outdoor vegetable garden, but students didn’t “really get the educational experience” of caring for it and seeing it grow over the summer months, said Darren Knipfer, green team leader and music teacher. That’s when he had the idea of adding hydroponic gardens.
They can grow tomatoes, other vegetables and herbs all winter long. Classroom teachers will often cut back the herbs and put the fresh trimmings in zip-lock bags to send home with the students.
Loan Arkenberg, a fourth-grade teacher at Arthur, said students feel ownership over the plants and are more attentive to them — kind of like having a class pet. Every month, a student is chosen to be the classroom “botanist” and is tasked with checking to make sure the plants are properly watered, Arkenberg said.
The students are also experimenting with growing plants in terrariums made of plastic soda bottles. A terrarium is an indoor garden in a sealed container — like an aquarium for plants. The plants and soil release water vapor, which goes back in to the soil.
Treyvon Hawkins, 9, a fourth-grader at Arthur, is growing a sunflower in his terrarium, but he’s “getting impatient” for it to grow, he said. The sunflower is the first thing he’s ever planted, and he’s excited to see flower buds later this spring.
The hydroponic stations are just one example of sustainability initiatives students in the Cedar Rapids Community School District are engaged in through green teams.
The Cedar Rapids district’s sustainability plan implemented this year will “cultivate this desire for environmental stewardship within our students,” green team coordinator Kristine Sorensen said.
“We are so proud of our students stepping up to advocate for positive change in educational and productive ways,” Sorensen said. “The leadership I see from our students is having an impact beyond the classroom and into our community.
Composting at Cedar River Academy
Only a small amount of garbage is thrown away by students and staff at Cedar River Academy, 720 Seventh Ave. SW, an elementary school in the Cedar Rapids district. The majority of material discarded by students and staff is recycled or composted.
From their first day of school, K-5 students learn about the school’s waste management line in the cafeteria: Dumping out extra milk and recycling the milk cartons, composting food refuse and throwing anything that can’t be recycled and composting in to a small trash bucket, said Elizabeth Callahan, Cedar River Academy magnet school coordinator.
Compost is kitchen waste, leaves, grass clippings and other organic material that provides essential nutrients for plant growth and is often used as fertilizer. It can be used to help improve soil, grow crops and improve water quality, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Organic waste in landfills generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas. By composting wasted food and other organic material, methane emissions are significantly reduced.
The students began composting during the 2019-20 school year. The school already had a place for compost in the cafeteria to help teach students about it, but at the end of the day it was thrown out with the rest of the garbage. Students were “horrified” to learn this, Callahan said. “They were so passionate, making phone calls all over the city to figure out who could take our compost for us.”
The students pitched the idea to Compost Ninja, a curbside organic waste diversion program in Iowa, which has been collecting the school’s compost for two years now.
Today, there are compost bins in every classroom, the cafeteria and common areas.
“What’s really impressive is the number of parents that come to us and say, ‘We do this at home now because our kids tell us we have to do it. They teach us,’” Callahan said. “The kids feel empowered to go out and change the world.”
Find them at EcoFest
Students at Arthur, Cedar River Academy and Erskine Elementary will be at EcoFest from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at NewBo City Market, 1100 Third St. SE. EcoFest is an Earth Day celebration with live music, vendors and artists.
Erskine students will be doing a water pollution demonstration and discussing the effects of pollutants in the local water system. Their demonstration will show how the effects of polluted water, especially chemicals and oil, is difficult to clean up.
Cedar River Academy students will be creating pollinator seed packets and discussing the importance of pollinators and what they need to survive.
Arthur students will talk about the importance of planting native trees. Students will be giving away 15 native trees provided by Clark McLeod and the Planting Forward Program through the Monarch Research Project.
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