Leftover Lessons

By Eve Pranis

"Several years ago my sixth graders were exploring decomposition using 2-liter soda bottles as suggested in the book Bottle Biology. But their interest waned because the action was so slow," reports Denise Grap from Simi Valley, CA. With a goal of helping her students discover that there was more than one way to digest a banana peel, Denise invited the city's waste management educator to offer them a worm's eye view.

After learning about worms and their penchant for trash, Denise's students tried housing a handful of red wigglers in a dishpan with air holes, then watched what they could do with lunchroom leftovers. "After seeing how quickly worms digested our waste, the kids wondered whether our school could actually make a dent in the waste that ended up in our local landfill," says Denise. The class was determined to uncover information on worm needs, preferences, and food capacity. Questions that they could explore through ethical investigations--how worms respond to light, for instance--these young scientists answered themselves. Other insights came through book and Internet research. But students didn't necessarily hang on the "experts' " judgments. "The kids learned that worms will eat half their weight in food every day," says Denise. "By carefully measuring results in our own worm farm, they discovered that they could only eat half their weight every two days." Through further research, students inferred that their high-fiber, relatively low-moisture worm fare took longer to digest.

Seven pounds of worms soon turned into 21. Students wondered if they could create a vermiculture system to recycle all the lunchroom waste. After measuring the amount of compostable cafeteria leftovers produced each day (50 to 60 pounds), the class pondered how many worms they would need to process that trash. "We decided that if we built five 2-cubic yard bins (based on a design from the local Waste Management Board), and fed each bin once a week, we would need 70 pounds of worms per bin," explains Denise. Realizing that this venture needed funding, students set up a recycling drive for cans, bottles, and paper to raise funds.

"The students dove into math as they evaluated bin designs, figured the amount and cost of lumber they'd need, and created scale models of 4-foot-wide by 6-foot-long by 1-foot-deep bins from cardboard," explains Denise. Impressed by the students' ambitions, an area worm farm business offered to donate all the worms and a food grinder, and to consult with students on the project.

Before leaving the vermiculture program to the next group of sixth graders, Denise's students created a three-pronged mission statement to guide their successors: reduce waste, educate others, and create a business to support the garden and deliver a percentage of produce to local food banks.

Cultivating Mentors

The sixth graders who inherited the worm bins had the charge of determining how to teach the rest of the student body to participate in the program. Members of five collaborative groups developed lessons covering three areas: exploring worm biology, creating a mini worm farm from liter bottles, and participating in the cafeteria waste program. After writing scripts for each type of lesson, the wise worm groups engaged each K-6 class. "The kids did a great job with interactive biology lessons, covering everything from worm responses to the environment (light, touch, moisture) to reproduction," says Denise. For example, the young teachers might ask a group, "Do you think worms have eyes?" Next, they would have the youngsters close their eyes, and see whether they could tell when a flashlight shines on them. A discussion of how and why worms respond to light, and hands-on investigations would follow. "When the kids taught others about reproduction, they'd first ask them to find three types of worms in a container," says Denise. "When the learners found the one- to two-week-old light-colored worms ("teenagers" with no middle band, or clitellum) and adults, they would discuss the six- to eight-week cycle from birth to breeding." Finally, students were invited to use castings from the large-scale project in their own garden plots.

Wiggling into Business

The final prong of the mission statement loomed large for Denise's next batch of sixth graders: to create a worm-based business. After inviting a parent and business partner to teach marketing and business skills, the class created an action plan for The Big Green Worm Farm. Student teams first created a logo, stationery, and how-to brochure for homeowners, then imagined and designed income-producing products. Their unique line featured bagged potting mix made with 50 percent worm castings, handmade worm farms (lidded liter bottle bottoms with shredded paper) complete with an instruction and activity booklet, and worms by the pound. "Now we even promote ourselves as consultants, helping other schools and homeowners start worm composting projects, and displaying our project and wares at community festivals," says Denise.

Start with Curriculum Goals

Squeezed by curriculum pressures and time constraints, teachers often ask how they can fit in a project like this. "I advise teachers not to tackle this type of project as something extra, but to first map their curriculum goals and standards, then consider how a worm composting project can support them," says Denise Grap, a teacher in Simi Valley, CA. "I started by building links to one curriculum area, then seeing what else fit as the project evolved." Math skills and concepts, she decided, would be an ideal fit with a vermiculture project. She began by listing her math standards--volume, yield, and so on--on one column of a chart, then identified in another column which aspect of the project would enable students to move toward each standard.

"Science, of course, was at the core," says Denise. "As we moved into the second stage of mentoring and creating a business, we naturally integrated language arts and oral communications skills." It's clear that learning via a meaningful project made its mark. "Now I know why it's important to know math, how to research information, read well, and learn to speak to groups," admitted one student.

Did you know...

Although earthworms seem part of our natural fabric, they may have traveled here from Europe in the soil of potted plants brought over by settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Alarming Questions About Worms section of the Schoolyard Nature Area Project Web site (www.stolaf.edu/other/snap/nls99worms.html) offers some interesting perspectives on worms as immigrants.

Get Materials from the Worm Farmers

Denise and her teaching partner, Deni Lopez, would be delighted to share details on the project and worm bin setup with other interested teachers. They have also offered to share a student-developed brochure on how to make liter-bottle worm farms and set up worm biology games and investigations. To request a brochure, call or write The Big Green Worm Farm, Parkview Center School, 1500 Alexander St., Simi Valley, CA 93065; Phone: 805-520-6755.

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