SUNY Oneonta and Riverside Elementary School are collaborating on a new program aimed at getting children excited about growing their own food.
With funding from a $3,976 NobleCause grant acquired through SUNY Oneonta’s Center for Social Responsibility and Community, Assistant Professor of Biology Sean Robinson built 12 vegetable grow boxes and installed them in each of Riverside’s K-5 classrooms in September.
Nearly 70 SUNY Oneonta biology and sociology students teamed up in small groups as “box buddies” for each of the classrooms. Throughout the semester, the students visited their assigned classrooms several times to help the children plant the boxes and present lessons about food, society, the environment and plant biology.
Associate Professor of Sociology Greg Fulkerson talks about teaching children where their food comes from.
Thirty to forty percent of the food grown, processed and transported in the United States will never be eaten.
Food waste is the single largest component going into municipal landfills.
Because of all that rotting food, landfills are the third-largest source of methane (a potent greenhouse gas) in the United States.
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture
The children planted green beans, peppers, lettuce, radishes and herbs in small soil cells, then transplanted the seedlings to larger pots. In conjunction with the hands-on planting activities, the biology students prepared and presented lessons on topics such as “Dynamics of Soil,” “Plant Nutrition and Photosynthesis,” “Flowers and Pollination” and “What is a Fruit?”
As a complement to the science lessons led by the biology students, students in Fulkerson’s Food, Society & the Environment class presented lessons on social science topics including “Globalization and Food,” “Hunger and Food Insecurity,” and “Food Waste and Recovery.” Each lesson was interactive, incorporating worksheets, games and group discussions.
We throw away at least 25% of our food. That’s like if you go to the grocery store and you buy four bags of food, and you drop one in the parking lot and you just keep walking. That’s a lot of food!
My favorite lesson was "Dynamics of Soil." We were talking to the 2nd-graders about what might be contained in different levels of soil, and a girl pulled me to the side and talked to me for a good five minutes about how she wanted to be a paleontologist. I just thought it was one of the sweetest, most tender moments I've ever experienced.
Each lesson was tailored to the grade level. For example, to explain the concept of “biodiversity” to kindergarteners, sociology students Matthew Flaster, Chris Saya and Sarah Piccorelli created an interactive presentation showing how all kinds of different animal and plant species live together in the sea.
Biodiversity is the shortened form of two words: "biological" and "diversity." It refers to the wide variety of plant and animal species that can be found on Earth, the communities they form and the habitats in which they live.
As an added challenge for the fifth-graders, Robinson built hydroponics growing units and placed them side by side with the regular grow boxes so the students could see which type of system worked better for their plants.
Hydroponics is a method of growing plants that does not use soil. Instead, the roots are placed in a water-based, nutrient-rich solution. An advantage of growing plants with hydroponics is that you can be in complete control of all the variables that affect plant growth.
Growers all over the world are using hydroponic techniques to compensate for a lack of fertile farmland or a large water supply.
Home gardeners use hydroponics on a smaller scale to grow fresh vegetables year-round, and to grow plants in smaller spaces, such as an apartment or balcony.
Greenhouses and nurseries grow plants in a soilless, peat- or bark-based growing mix, and nutrients are applied to the growing mix through the water supply.
What was really interesting was that we got to use different kinds of fertilizer and nutrients for our plants, and we watched them grow and grow and progress.
A lot of my students have never grown anything. They’ve never held a plant in their hands or been able to transplant things or eat something that they’ve grown.
The Bountiful Boxes project has clarified that I am on the right track for my future. I want to be a high school biology teacher, and this experience has given me the opportunity to actually teach concepts instead of just learning them.
This experience has made me more hopeful for the future. By stressing the importance of plants and the natural world to the students, I hope to help in raising a generation of environmentalists.
We’re actually making our own food and we know what what’s happening to it 24/7. We know there’s no chemicals in it.”
The most rewarding thing about teaching biology to third-graders was when they clearly grasped the concepts and related the biology knowledge to their own lives. It was exciting when they “got it!”
After a successful launch, Fulkerson and Robinson said they are excited about the partnership’s potential to grow. Robinson will continue to visit the school this spring to check on the plants, and school Principal Melinda Murdock is working on plans for a harvest festival or local foods tasting event. Next fall, Fulkerson will have a new group of students doing classroom visits, and he hopes to get more faculty members and schools involved.
This project has really helped my students learn the information better. It’s also helped with other skills, such as public speaking. Initially the students were nervous about presenting in front of anybody – even little kids—but then by the second or third week, they got totally into it. They got comfortable, they found their groove. And they had fun with it.
I think the model is a really good one in terms of bringing the college students to the elementary-age students. Everybody benefits: the community, our students. It’s a win-win.