Over the past several weeks, students at Kilough Elementary School have been learning about gardening, sustainability and important STEM skills in the school’s greenhouse, which Nutrition Director Scott Richardson has helped to revamp and replant.
According to Richardson, the project first started when he was at Kilough to check on the school’s kitchen and noticed the greenhouse sitting dormant at the side of the school. He asked KES Principal Teresa Conowal about it and she emphatically gave him permission to work on getting it back up and running.
“When they built the greenhouse I think three years ago, Mr. Pankey helped get this all up and running and with the pandemic it just sort of sat empty,” Richardson said. “This is what I used to do when I was in my former job; we had two and a half acres of farmland behind the school and two greenhouses; so I had to re-amend it, tilled it up and put about 10 bags of garden dirt in there to get it back to where it needed to be.”
The greenhouse includes several beds to hold various types of plants, a system to teach the students about hydroponic gardening and a “salad bar”, an old piece of equipment from the kitchen that was retired when it didn’t meet code and has been transformed into a bed to grow different types of lettuce.
Richardson said that he’s been coming over to the greenhouse several days a week after work or on weekends to check on the garden and tend it. Once the garden was back to a point where crops could be grown, he and the students at KES set about planting it.
“We came out and planted romaine lettuce and now they’re able to see what the lettuce looks like when it’s almost fully grown,” Richardson said. “It’s been a labor of love getting it going, letting the kids come back out here and learn and getting this to where kids can learn.”
The goal for the plants in the garden, Richardson said, is to grow enough that the kitchen staff at Kilough can begin using them in the menu for the students to eat at school.
“The goal is this greenhouse is going to be for the kitchen, the kitchen is going to become a test kitchen, and all the crops we grow here are going to go into the kitchen to be processed for the students,” Richardson said. “The reason this is a test kitchen is they’re going to have to learn how to properly process it, how to store it and serve it; it’s different when you’re dealing with fresh produce than the stuff that’s in the store.”
He added that letting the students work in the greenhouse and grow their own vegetables for use in the school kitchen is a great way to get kids excited about eating healthy.
“This is how kids learn how to eat healthy; when they learn how to grow it, care for it and harvest it then the natural inquisitiveness of the kids naturally want to eat it,” Richardson said. “All of this is naturally grown and organically grown; we don’t use pest control or anything, and it gets them excited about eating vegetables, so that’s really what I’m all about.”
In order for the greenhouse to produce enough fresh vegetables to feed all the children at Kilough, Richardson said that it should be able to sustain one or two crops at a time.
“In the fall I’m going to do more lettuce, probably some radishes and some peppers, smaller things we can use that’ll be enough for all the students to have,” Richardson said. “And this summer in the box out back I’m going to do sweet potatoes because I know that that will yield probably about 200 to 300 pounds of sweet potatoes, so that’ll give enough sweet potatoes for probably two to three feedings.”
In addition to producing healthy food for use in the kitchen and teaching the students agricultural skills, Richardson said that the greenhouse project offers several opportunities to teach important STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) skills.
This includes teaching the older students how to calculate perimeter, area and volume of the garden beds, and providing the younger students with a “classification station” of different shapes, sizes and types of rocks to give them practice in sensory integration and describing what they see using all of their senses.
“I call it ‘garden math’; it’s really simple but these things are what you’ll need to know if you’re ever going to do any sort of gardening,” Richardson said. “This is a learning lab; the intention of all things in schools is for learning so this is a learning lab as much as it is going to be for introducing the kids to agriculture. It teaches the kids about these things in a project-based fashion through all they’re doing, so it’s all about learning.”
As the greenhouse project continues to expand moving forward, Richardson said that he hopes to potentially incorporate more STEM learning opportunities including a sensory garden, a tilt table to teach balance, a “playground xylophone” out of PVC pipes to teach about sound waves and a tic-tac-toe game out of painted rocks.
Both the agricultural and STEM skills that can be taught at the greenhouse are incredibly valuable to students at any grade level, Richardson said.
“The good thing about greenhouse teaching is that it’s naturally spiraled; you can teach plant structure to little kids all the way up to energy and plant growth and metabolism to older kids,” Richardson said. “It’s just something great; it’s teaching proper nutrition, it’s teaching soft skills, analytical skills, STEM skills — you can’t beat greenhouse lessons.”
He added that giving students the opportunity to learn agricultural and STEM skills at such a young age will benefit not only the students moving forward, but also the Career, Technical and Agricultural Education (CTAE) programs at the junior high and high school levels as the students advance through the school system.
“I love having this; it’s great for students here to understand agriculture and to get interested in agriculture because these students will end up growing into our CTAE programs as they get into junior high and high school,” Richardson said. “We’re building a new ag center, so it’s great to have students now understanding this because they’ll be the ones that will inherit the new ag center.”
Eventually, Richardson said that he hopes to use the greenhouse project at Kilough as a pilot program to potentially expand the farm-to-table effort in the rest of the schools in the district. But for now, he said he’s incredibly pleased with how well the project has taken on at Kilough.
“We’re looking at this sort of as a pilot program to see if this is viable and can we do this,” Richardson said. “So right now my goal is to get this up and running, let these kids learn about this and this will be a feeder program into the CTAE program — it’s going great; it’s way more already than I envisioned so it’s marvelous.”
Conowal said that having Richardson’s help in revamping the greenhouse project at Kilough has been invaluable to her and her staff at the school.
“He really has a vision when it comes to stuff like this — I am happy to learn from the best; we are really excited,” Conowal said. “What an opportunity for Dawson County and I love that we’re the pilots.”
At the end of the day, Richardson said that he loves sharing his passion with the students and teaching them the skills that they can use moving forward in their lives.
“It’s a great program; I’m very glad that Kilough has allowed me to come in here and put this back together and get it running,” Richardson said. “It’s a lot of fun; it’s a great labor and Teresa has been wonderful letting me come over here and take over. I’m a teacher first, so I enjoy teaching students sustainability.”