Education and eating: Thermopolis school focuses on ag education through planting projectWritten by Saige Albert
Thermopolis – As a vocational instructor at Thermopolis Middle School and Thermopolis High School, Becky Martinez attends several trainings each year to learn about new projects and new ways to teach students.
“Last summer, I went to a Junior Master Gardner training in Casper,” she says. “We used curriculum from Texas A&M, and it talks about getting produce in front of students and giving them an opportunity to try it.”
“We utilize project-based learning in my classroom, and we’ve started a project to be able to grow our own food,” Martinez says. “We’ve planted a pizza garden in garden boxes in the classroom.”
Gardening in the classroom
Martinez has outfitted her classroom with four planters that are two feet by four feet in size.
In their “pizza garden,” Martinez explains that sixth grade students have planted many of the ingredients they might need to make a pizza, including tomatoes and peppers, as well as several quick-growing plants like lettuce and spinach.
They planted seed during the middle of March, and students have been documenting their growing experience.
“The students were so amazed at how much the lettuce had grown in just one week,” she says. “It’s great to watch the students as they observe and learn about plants.”
In addition to learning about how to grow plants, Martinez notes that her students are also carrying out several science experiments.
“The students also decided they wanted to experiment in this project,” she says. “One of our boxes is organic. We’re also going to do a good, better and best soil composition trial.”
A third aspect of the project will be to vary the lighting to answer the question, is light important for plants?
“I’ve tried to let my students decide what they want to do and let them run with it,” Martinez says. “I want them to feel like this is their project from start to finish.”
Throughout the summer
As the school year winds down, Martinez says that the plants will be transplanted from the indoor garden boxes to an outdoor 16-by-16, fenced-in area on school property.
“We have two eighth graders at our school who have awesome, big ideas,” she says. “They are going to take care of the plants during the summer in a school garden.”
McKenna Bomengen was one of the eighth graders who conceptualized the idea of a school garden.
Bomengen says, “This opportunity is valuable for students at Thermopolis Middle School because it gives us a chance to experience the reward of a good work ethic.”
Martinez notes that students attending summer school, as well as community members or teachers who want to “adopt” the garden for a week, will be involved in caring for the plants when school is not in session.
“This is a great start to our school garden,” Martinez adds.
The students hope to continue to grow the garden project, and Martinez says she will be applying for a Wyoming Department of Agriculture grant to construct a hoop house on school property for students to utilize.
“Our principal also wants to see if we can add a chicken coop,” she says. “We’re looking at if that is possible because we’re on the edge of city limits. The chickens would be able to supplement eggs to the school.”
With an abundant crop expected in the fall, Martinez notes that the produce will be utilized in the school cafeteria as part of a Farm-to-School project.
“We hope to produce enough to be able to supplement our school lunch program,” she says. “This is a hands-on way to help students learn about where their food comes from.”
Martinez continues, “Even within our middle school in rural Wyoming, a lot of students don’t know what a tomato plant looks like. They think their spaghetti sauce comes from a jar, not from tomatoes in the garden. We’re trying to help our students understand that farmers produce their food.”
At the same time, she also says the project provides hands-on learning, group work, collaboration and communication.
“In the classes I teach, we do a lot of group work and learn how to communicate with each other. It’s more real-world,” she adds.
Martinez is also working to secure grant funds to enhance their Farm-to-School program.
“There are grants that we can get to supplement our school district’s lunch program with beef or locally grown produce,” she says.
Benefits for students
The benefits for this project are long lasting and extensive, and Martinez says, “We’re trying to figure out how we can provide a healthy, balanced lunch and use fresh, local products.”
Ray Schafer of Hot Springs County Farm Bureau says, “This project teaches students about leadership and responsibility. We’re impressed, and we want to do everything we can to encourage the next generation to learn about agriculture.”
Hot Springs County Farm Bureau provided funding for the construction of outdoor gardens and other materials to support the project.
“The garden will also expose students to a healthier lifestyle when we get to help our school cooks put together homemade meals,” Bomengen adds. “Altogether, I hope this project progresses long after I have graduated and, more importantly, leaves an imprint on the Thermopolis ag program.”