Together, environmental science teacher Michael Cooper and food science teacher Brian Robinson have rejuvenated the high school’s Eco Club. Cooper and Robinson understand the benefits of a hands-on approach to learning and incorporate it into activities, including planting a vegetable garden, making syrup and creating an “Edible Wall” at the school.
In September, pairs of students were assigned 2’x4’ garden plots. The Hudson Valley Seed Library donated seeds to the program, which students chose and planted.
“We didn’t just want it to be a garden, we also looked at the scientific concepts behind it,” said Cooper. “All the students kept garden journals. There were 10 or 11 metrics they had to record every day they were out there, such as the angle at which the sun’s solar rays hit the garden.”
By measuring that metric, the students discovered that not as much energy gets to the garden, and thus why less plant growth occurs in November and December as opposed to September.
“Every day we record the humidity, precipitation, how hot it is, whether it’s cloudy or not, how our soil is doing,” said senior Nick Teitter. “It’s my first time having a garden, growing my own plants; it’s really interesting.”
Many students learn better by doing. “Reading out of a book, you don’t really understand what people go through trying to plant a garden,” said senior Ariel Cora. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s really fun to come out here every day and get dirty.”
The excitement only grew once they started harvesting their crops. “During the fall, for our first harvest, [the students] were plucking up radishes and lettuces and all these great different greens,” said Cooper. “I’d say, ‘Try some!’ and they’d say, ‘We can’t eat that.’ They couldn’t get past the idea that it doesn’t come in a plastic wrapper.”
In the winter, Cooper and Robinson began the extremely successful syrup project. “We started out recording the physical characteristics of the trees,” said Cooper. “We tried to see if there was a correlation between tree size and sap produced. We also did taps, arranging them according to compass rose.”
It is common knowledge in the sugaring industry that the north side of the tree doesn’t produce as much sap due to lack of sun. Therefore, taps are generally not put on that side. “We wanted to test that. So, for a couple of trees, we picked the north side. It’s not necessarily about production; we’re not a business, we’re trying to test concepts.”
Robinson’s class also recorded temperature each day and by relating that to sap production, they made a correlation to climate change. A few universities in the Northeast have been doing studies such as these, so Cooper and Robinson used those studies to create an initial data set for Saugerties.
Now, students are once again busy with the garden, and a new project called the Edible Wall. In the lobby of the high school stands a wall with strawberry plants, herbs and lettuce that the students maintain.
Cooper talked about how the work differs from most types of school work.
“It was an assignment that at the end, you had a bottle of syrup. Students took great pride in that, saying, ‘I helped make that.’ Or having them deliver their vegetables to whoever was buying them, they took great pride in that, saying, ‘I did this, I raised this from seed, I took care of this.’”
Robinson also talked about what students learned beyond the curriculum. “From starting a fire to using a hammer, shovel, a hoe, the students learned valuable life lessons. A lot of that stuff I kind of took for granted. Many of them never had that connection to doing these tasks outdoors. It was also a lesson in teamwork.”
Teamwork plays a role in the program’s success. Without help from the Winston Farm Alliance, Hudson Valley Seed Library, school district and community, these projects would have been difficult to create. Cooper and Robinson each contributed some of their own money to the fund.
Cooper’s passion for teaching, the environment and sustainability shines through his statements. “The whole purpose of all of this is so our kids can see what gardening entails and hopefully can bring that back to their own homes. It’s not this all-or-nothing approach. We don’t mean to have everyone run out and say we’re going 100 percent off-grid. We’re trying to say that you can do little things at your own house whether you have an acre or very small lot, you can do things that help out yourself and the environment.” Sustainability is everything.
The duo continues to look to the future with ideas such as planting apple and maple trees, establishing a lunch room compost system and designing and creating aquaponics systems in class. The ultimate goal is to have an outdoor lab, and with all the success they’ve had in one year, the program is well on its way to making that dream reality.