Last year, MEA member Bill Boerman launched an ambitious greenhouse project at Holland Middle School because he knew it would pay big dividends in his STEM students’ learning about design, gardening, and nutrition.
Now it’s led to a benefit he didn’t imagine: delivering fresh produce to a local food bank for people thrust into need by the global COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been kind of cool to see the project transition from an educational purpose to more of community support,” the 22-year veteran educator said. “I never would have envisioned operating a greenhouse in the middle of a pandemic, but God works in funny ways.”
Last week, with the help of a few other teachers at the school, Boerman harvested his first donation to Community Action House: 21 pounds of lettuce, kale, and Swiss chard were produced from just half of the 10 beds in the greenhouse.
“We looked at what we could grow quickly,” he said, “and also with the lettuces it’s nice that about every two weeks we can have another full harvest. You crack it off, and it keeps growing back.”
In addition, within the next few weeks, Boerman expects the tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, and peas that students had started with seeds in the classroom will also be ready for harvest. Those vegetable seedlings were transferred to the greenhouse after schools statewide closed on March 16.
“A team of teachers, four of us, finished what the students started,” he said. “It’s good to see that – while there are obviously a lot of challenges right now – we have positive things happening, too. The kids are excited to see their work help out in the community.”
Before the coronavirus, the plan was to have students use all sorts of skills – from math to writing and science – to plan and execute a gardening and nutrition program. The idea was sparked a few years ago when Boerman noticed students at the Title I school lacked nutritional awareness, he said.
Although 70 percent of students at the school qualify for free and reduced meals, “I realized that most of the behavior issues I was seeing in class happened because a lot of the students weren’t eating breakfast, or they weren’t eating lunch, or they were not eating both, for a variety of reasons,” Boerman said.
When Boerman’s dad volunteered to talk about gardening in class and brought in food from his home garden, students told him they had never eaten blueberries or raspberries before. “Those are common staples that are grown right in the area,” Boerman said.
He enlisted grants and community sponsors to bring hydroponic towers into his classroom for growing seedlings; a 960-square-foot greenhouse for nurturing a variety of plants, including vegetables and herbs; and a mobile kitchen unit for preparing yummy meals with the food.
Students used research and calculating skills to figure out the volume of soil required to fill garden beds. They determined materials needed to create a paved walkway for the greenhouse, added this year. They learned about leveling with sand and crushed concrete. They called the landscaping business to order materials.
When they had problems last year with some plants dying, the students used micro-bits to measure the soil’s moisture content in different beds for a couple of weeks. They graphed the data to decide how to adjust watering for best results.
In its first year of operation starting last spring, the greenhouse also facilitated food creations which allowed for real-life lessons in concepts such as ratios and averages, in addition to the science of nutrition.
“Cooking is STEM – designing, creating, testing improving. So STEM is the tie-in to helping our kids realize the importance of eating and being healthy and the science and math behind it all.”
For example, students made smoothies using ratios to determine how much of each ingredient to put in. The concoctions were then rated by the class, and averages were used to change the ratios and improve upon the recipes.
“Then, for example, when they hit those concepts of ratios and averages in math class, they said, ‘Oh, that’s so easy.’”
Now, like students across Michigan, Boerman’s middle school STEM students are learning remotely. One of their first projects involved designing and making a carrying device for putting the food donations in at the food bank.
Students had to determine what design would best handle the weight of produce and make the device using materials from around the house. They were also required to research and inscribe on their device an inspirational phrase from a well-known person. Those devices are now used to bag and box the free produce, Boerman said.
“Everywhere around the country and the world, people are out of work and struggling,” he said. “To be able to use their greenhouse and school resources to help the community is good for the kids. They want to know they’re helping.”