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Guest Opinions

Wheatland Middle School Students Get 'Down to the Roots'

Written by Brook Brockman

By Brook Brockman, Wyoming Department of Agriculture Program and Promotions Coordinator

Three years ago, Wheatland Middle School (WMS) Principal Steve Loyd began a journey toward hands-on education about agriculture by forming a partnership with the Wyoming Department of Agriculture (WDA) through the Specialty Crops Grant Programs.

The project started when Principal Loyd wanted more ways to utilize some of the large, grassy, unused areas that were continually watered and mowed at the school. Mr. Loyd submitted a proposal to WDA and received a WDA grant to erect a hoop house or high tunnel at WMS. The hoop house would not only reduce unused lawn space, it would also provide a structure for teachers to provide hands-on lessons about the agriculture production process for students.

With the plans in order, construction began with aid from University of Wyoming Extension, WDA, members of the Wheatland Master Gardeners and WMS students and teachers. Within three days, the initial 20-foot by 48-foot structure was complete. Since then, additional venting aids were added, including a solar operated fan and two temperature-controlled vents, which expanded learning opportunities.

Over the summer months, the Wheatland Master Gardeners and WMS teachers utilized the space as a community garden, and when students returned in the fall, the fun began. WMS science, math, consumer science and shop teachers began incorporating the hoop house into their curriculum. With a strong emphasis for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) curriculum, the hoop house provided a great opportunity for hands-on learning. For example, shop students aided in the completion of the raised beds, and the consumer science classes utilized tomatoes from the hoop house to make salsa.

With progression of time, the hoop house provided an unexpected benefit to WMS. Teachers found the hoop house provided a soothing and secure environment allowing students to focus and learn. For some students with different learning styles, the hoop house provided a new classroom environment that met their learning needs. While the hoop house provided multiple learning experiences, students and teachers also enjoyed working with their hands and seeing a project from start to finish and being able to repeat the cycle. Along with this, there has been more use by incorporating a hydroponics section for growing.

Following up with Mr. Loyd, WDA found that less than 10 percent of WMS students had ever been directly involved with growing, gardening or utilizing plants and soils for education. At the end of the first school year, Mr. Loyd reported that 100 percent of the students had direct exposure to learning through the hoop house with plans to continue building and offering more opportunities!

The hoop house was a hit with the students, and one mother reported, “My son was excited to return to school in the fall. Usually he does not want summer vacation to end, but this year, he couldn’t wait to return to school and see how the potatoes the students had planted in the spring before school let out had progressed. Thank you for giving them this opportunity.”

Along with the hoop house program, WDA and the Wyoming Department of Education (WDE) secured a small grant opportunity to provide schools with vertical growing hydroponics classroom units. The units expanded the hoop house concept to the classroom and allowed for more opportunities for education. WMS received two of the units and have been able to compare the vertical growing hydroponics system with the traditional methods used in the hoop house.

For more information on these opportunities, contact the Wyoming Department of Agriculture to learn more about our Specialty Crops Grants Program and Farm to Plate (School) program. More information on these programs can also be found online at agriculture.wy.gov or wyfarm2plate.org.