Learning & Growing: Plant and Soil Science lab affords Sabetha students hands-on learning experiences
As work began last fall on the north side of Sabetha High School, many might have been unsure of what it was. However, as the structure began to take shape there was no doubt — it was a greenhouse.
Dubbed the Plant and Soil Science Lab, this new structure is providing students with hands-on, research-based learning opportunities in horticulture and soil science.
“You can talk about it all day long, but here students are doing it — learning through doing,” said Chris Bauerle, agricultural education teacher and FFA advisor at SHS. “Most of these kids are hands-on learners, and we are doing that — pruning, watering, testing.”
The PSS Lab is owned and operated by the Sabetha High School FFA chapter, and mainly utilized by the agricultural education department, but it will be utilized by other departments in the future, including biology and family and consumer sciences.
Students spent the entire fall semester constructing the PSS Lab, and began setting up the planting systems in January. Already, students and their work in the PSS Lab has supplied one day worth of lettuce for salads at all three Sabetha schools. The lettuce, and most of the other vegetables being grown in the Lab, is grown with the new aquaponics system. The PSS Lab has four aquaponics tanks.
This system creates an independent ecosystem, in which the vegetables roots are immersed in water from a large fish tank. The fish in this tank provide all of the nutrients needed to grow the plants, and the plants then clean the water that goes back into the fish tank.
Currently, the PSS Lab is using Koi and Tilapia to “feed” the aquaponics tanks. In the future, Bauerle said they hope to add shrimp and prongs to help clean the tanks. The Lab also has a few crawfish, bullhead catfish and a turtle — none of which do anything special, but are more like “class pets,” Bauerle said with a laugh.
In addition to it being “nice to get out of the classroom,” sophomore David Pierson said he has enjoyed experiencing the interaction between fish and plants.
“It has been neat to experience the independent ecosystem [with the aquaponics system], with the fish providing for the plants and the plants cleaning the water for the fish,” Pierson said.
The aquaponics system is just one of three methods being used to grow plants in the PSS Lab. Another system is a hydroponics system, which is similar to the aquaponics in that the plant roots are growing in water rather than soil, but different in that it is not an independent ecosystem. The students add the nutrients into the system, after testing to see what is needed. The PSS Lab has three hydroponics tanks.
Sophomore Amber Menold says she enjoys the lab, because she likes to do hands-on things, and working with plants is what she wants to do for a career some day.
“It’s not as easy as it looks,” Menold said, noting that the students have had a few plants die. “There’s a lot of technical stuff that goes into it. It is not just putting a plant in a pot and watering it.”
Students also having been growing numerous plants “old school” — in soil. Many of the plants being grown in soil are types that would be used in landscaping or decorative pots.
Senior Alison Herrman says it is nice to do something “out of the ordinary.”
“It has been nice to do something out of normal school. I think everyone enjoys coming out here and watching everything grow,” Herrmann said. “I have learned a lot of new things, like Mr. Bauerle taught us to prune flowers in a very specific way, which was really cool.”
Can We Build It?
The brand new SHS Plant and Soil Science Lab is a dream realized by Bauerle. An SHS graduate himself, Bauerle wanted a greenhouse when he was attending school. As he made his way through college and finally into student teaching at Neodesha, he had the opportunity to experience the learning and teaching experiences made available with a greenhouse.
“When we do our student teaching, we have to go somewhere outside of our home district,” Bauerle said. “I went to Neodesha, where they had a greenhouse. Growing up here [Sabetha], I knew this was an opportunity our students were missing.”
But it would still be a few years before the idea of a greenhouse at SHS would take root. Bauerle completed his degree and was hired at SHS, but he wanted to get established before proposing the idea. He finally would make the proposition, through the SHS FFA organization, and the work to make it a reality began during the 2016-17 school year.
The group applied for a grant with Monsanto, Bauerle said, but that fell through. The group then re-purposed that grant application and applied through Frontier Farm Credit. This time, they were awarded $10,000. This initial seed money was coupled with $10,000 from the SHS FFA chapter, as well as $10,000 from a fundraising drive by the Sabetha FFA Alumni organization.
“The cost of the building was $34,000, and we had all the funds raised for it in just a few months,” Bauerle said.
The more people learned about the project, the more interested they were in donating — Sabetha PTO donated $5,000 to the project; and the Sabetha FFA Alumni did another fundraising drive with a $7,000 matching offer from Kent Saylor, which ended up netting a total of $21,000. Local businesses kicked in supplies and labor for the project, including Midwest Ready Mix donating all of the concrete, which Thieme Construction poured; Edelmans donating countless hours of labor; and Mike and Sharon Plum donating numerous planter boxes.
The veritable “icing on the cake” came this past fall, when Sabetha FFA applied for the Frontier Farm Credit grant again, and was awarded another $10,000.
“The community has totally supported and funded this project, which to me is one of the coolest things about the project,” Bauerle said. “Other than the electric and water bills, the school has not had to pay for anything.”
The Plant and Soil Science Lab will be holding a plant sale the next two weeks, beginning April 27. The Greenhouse will be open from 3 to 5 p.m. Friday, April 27, Wednesday, May 2, and Thursday, May 3; 9 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, April 28.
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Amber Deters is Co-Editor of The Sabetha Herald, where she has been on staff since 2005. She specializes in school board, election and legislative reporting, as well as photography and page and advertising design. Amber is a 2005 Kansas State University graduate with a degree in journalism and mass communications, print journalism sequence. She lives in Sabetha with her husband and three children.