A million of them could live in an acre of soil. They can "eat" their own weight in soil and organic waste every day. We're hearing more and more from classrooms using nature's recyclers to engage, motivate, and spark investigations and understanding of key life science concepts. Here are highlights from some schools that have gotten hooked on worms.
"Since my second and third graders were involved in a literature unit on 'mysteries,' I decided to leave an empty wooden worm bin on a shelf in the classroom," reports Windham, VT, teacher Jodi Paloni. "When the kids started asking about it, I encouraged them to use their detective skills to figure out what it was." Once students finally uncovered the mystery, the worm bedding was prepared and the new guests arrived. Before working with the worms, the class created a 'caretakers' oath' by brainstorming a list of qualities of good worm caretakers (for example, they feed and water, don't abuse worms to scare others, and handle their charges carefully). Then each student signed the document.
After several weeks of free exploration, Jodi asked each student to list five observations and three questions about worms that intrigued them. Some of these questions, such as What colors do worms prefer?, lead to small group experiments. "This question, in particular, seemed somewhat farfetched and I struggled with whether I should let the kids pursue it," notes Jodi. The class did follow through with it, using different setups, including placing worms on plates with different colored water droplets. "Students discovered through several variations of this investigation that worms actually seemed to move toward darker colors. This launched a discussion of light and dark in relation to the worms' natural habitats. I'm glad I let them pursue their own line of inquiry," Jodi adds.
Meanwhile, fifth and sixth graders in Holly McKenzie's Middlebury, VT, classroom wondered if their classroom worm-grown compost might improve soil for growing plants. They decided to experiment by raising bean plants in potting soil, straight worm compost, and worm compost mixed with potting soil. "Our planning process brought up the question of what constitutes good soil and good plant growth," Holly reports. "Are taller plants, faster-growing plants, or more leaves indicators of better soil?" Students agreed that there wasn't necessarily a right answer here, but overwhelmingly concurred after experimenting that the plants seemed to thrive with a mixture containing worm compost.
Worms play the lion's role in a Laytonville, CA, school's gardening and recycling initiative, turning lunch scraps into nourishing garden compost to grow vegetables for the cafeteria, thus beginning the cycle again. The student council paid for materials to make four 4' x 8' worm bins which, along with the school garden, are maintained by students. "They rotate through the jobs of collecting, weighing, processing, and charting food waste daily," explains teacher and garden director Binet Payne. "We also recycle our old newsprint and colored paper as bedding in the worm bins." When they factor in the worm recycling with their recycling of other materials (e.g., milk cartons, tin cans, and paper), the school can boast that they've reduced their daily trash from six 55-gallon bags to just half of one bag!
Photography by Rebecca Crouch/National Gardening Association