Cedar Rapids students learn to help the environment with “green teams” and share lessons for Earth Day – Advice Eating

Kate Rambo, left, and Okima West, both 10, look at the tomato plant they are growing in fourth grade Loan Arkenberg at Arthur Elementary School on Wednesday. Kate said she enjoys watching the seedling they planted grow and noted how unpredictable plant growth can be. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

Kate Rambo, 10, left, listens to classmate Cheyenne Marion of Arthur Elementary, also 10, on Wednesday as she talks about the terrariums the class planted for Mother’s Day gifts. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

Treyvon Hawkins, 9, points out his seedling Wednesday while speaking to his classmates during Loan Arkenberg’s fourth grade at Arthur Elementary School in Cedar Rapids. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

A hydroponic tomato plant stands under lights next to a diagram of Loan Arkenberg’s terrarium method in fourth grade at Arthur Elementary School in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday. The classroom has been working on growing plants using a terrarium made out of soda bottles. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

Arthur Elementary fourth graders Lucy Aiels, left, and Okima West, right, look at some of the plants they planted for Mother’s Day at Arthur Elementary School in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS – Fourth graders at Arthur Elementary School eat freshly harvested tomatoes grown in the classroom’s hydroponic garden – a method of growing crops without soil.

Over the last three years, as part of the school team’s eco-friendliness efforts, Arthur Elementary has been able to purchase hydroponic gardens for almost every classroom – around 10. Green Teams are interactive educational programs at Cedar Rapids schools that empower students and staff to help the environment through waste reduction, energy and water conservation, and environmental education.

Arthur Elementary’s principals originally wanted to have an outdoor vegetable garden, but the students didn’t “really have the educational experience” to nurture it and watch it grow over the summer months, said Darren Knipfer, green team leader and music teacher. That’s when he got the idea to add hydroponic gardens.

You can grow tomatoes, other vegetables and herbs all winter long. Class teachers often cut back the herbs and pack the fresh ingredients in zip-lock bags to send home with the students.

Loan Arkenberg, a fourth-grade teacher at Arthur, said the students feel like they own the plants and are more mindful of them — a bit like having a class pet. Each month, one student is chosen to be the “botanist” in the classroom, tasked with checking that plants are being watered properly, Arkenberg said.

Students are also experimenting with growing plants in terrariums made from plastic soda bottles. A terrarium is an indoor garden in a closed container – like an aquarium for plants. The plants and the soil release water vapor, which goes back into the soil.

Treyvon Hawkins, 9, a fourth-grader at Arthur’s, 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 has ever planted and he is looking forward to seeing flower buds later this spring.

The hydroponic stations are just one example of sustainability initiatives students in the Cedar Rapids Community School District are involved in through green teams.

The Cedar Rapids district’s sustainability plan implemented this year will “cultivate that desire for environmental responsibility in our students,” said Kristine Sorensen, green team coordinator.

“We are so proud that our students are committed to making positive change in an educational and productive way,” said Sorensen. “The leadership I see in our students resonates beyond the classroom and into our community.

Composting at Cedar River Academy

Only a small amount of trash is picked up by students and staff at Cedar River Academy, 720 Seventh Ave. SW, an elementary school in the Cedar Rapids neighborhood. Most of the 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 disposal line in the cafeteria: dump out excess milk and recycle the milk cartons, compost food scraps and put anything that can’t be recycled in a small composting bin, Elizabeth Callahan said, Magnet School Coordinator at Cedar River Academy.

Compost is kitchen waste, leaves, grass clippings, and other organic matter that provides essential nutrients for plant growth and is often used as fertilizer. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, it can be used to improve soil, grow crops, and improve water quality.

Organic waste in landfills produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Composting food waste and other organic matter significantly reduces methane emissions.

Students began composting in the 2019/20 school year. The school already had a spot for compost in the cafeteria to teach students, but at the end of the day it was thrown out with the rest of the trash. The students were “horrified” to learn this, Callahan said. “They were so passionate and they called all over town to find out who could take our compost for us.”

Students pitched the idea to Compost Ninja, a curbside organic waste diversion program in Iowa that has been collecting the school’s compost for two years.

Today there are compost bins in every classroom, the canteen and the common rooms.

“What’s really impressive is the number of parents who come to us and say, ‘We’re doing this at home now because our kids are telling us we have to do this. They teach us,” Callahan said. “The children feel empowered to go out and change the world.”

Find them at EcoFest

Students from Arthur, Cedar River Academy and Erskine Elementary will be at EcoFest on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at NewBo City Market, 1100 Third St. SE. EcoFest is an Earth Day celebration featuring live music, vendors and performers.

Erskine students will conduct a water pollution demonstration and discuss the impact of pollutants on the local water system. Your demonstration will show how difficult it is to eliminate the effects of polluted water, especially chemicals and oil.

Cedar River Academy students will make pollinator seed packets and discuss the importance of pollinators and what they need to survive.

Arthur students will speak about the importance of planting native trees. Students are giving away 15 native trees provided by Clark McLeod and the Planting Forward program through the Monarch Research Project.

Comments: (319) 398-8411; grace.king@thegazette.com

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