Enter any elementary school cafeteria and you are bound to see much of the same picture: Students lined up waiting to fill their tray chatting with the servers who over the years have learned not only their name but whether they do or do not like peas. You might observe friends laughing with one another as they plan what they will do at recess or spy kids leaning over their shoulder to chat to the classmate at the table behind them.
In these ways Wichita Collegiate’s lunchroom is like many. But it might begin to look a bit different as our students clear their trays and start to meticulously pick out the items that belong in the compost bucket. You might then spot the rotating green team named the Global Guardians collecting the bucket and adding the discarded food to the compost pile built by our students. How did these nine-year-olds learn so much about composting? In science, of course.
Lower School Science teacher Mrs. Jena Simms started the year determined to teach our students about food scarcity in an impactful way: “The goal this year was to tie together a series of projects centered in science so that the Lower School students could understand beginning to end how to help fill a gap in our community, and in doing so, help those that are food insecure in small but meaningful ways.” The result has been that students in grades 1-4 learn all about food – where food comes from, the waste food can create, how to grow food, and the communities that grapple with food scarcity – all while engaging with their own food supply through hands-on design projects.
PHASE I: LEARNING ABOUT COMMUNITY
Throughout campus, Wichita Collegiate School is fortunate to host several Aeroponics Tower Gardens, vertical gardens that are growing kale, basil, arugula, and so many other leafy greens. Though we have had these towers on our campus for a few years, each year our teachers have determined new ways for our students to better engage with them. This year the towers became a tool for Mrs. Simms to teach students about food scarcity.
With the mission of our Institute for Community Impact in mind – to inspire every student to be the best version of themselves and empower them to lead lives of impact in their community and their world – Mrs. Simms didn’t just want to grow food; she wanted to teach our students where that food could go once harvested. Students learned about communities within the Wichita area that were food insecure and discussed what that might indicate globally. Conversations on what role they could play in helping these communities took place. The result? A year-long commitment by Lower School students to planting, nurturing, harvesting, and delivering nutrient-dense food from the Aeroponics Tower Gardens to food-insecure community members served by organizations like the Union Rescue Mission.
PHASE II: CONNECTING TO SCIENCE
Being a science teacher, Mrs. Simms knew there was even more to discover on the topic of food and the role it plays in our lives. And when learning about food in school, where is the most logical place to begin? The lunchroom, of course. Mrs. Simms began discussions with students about the food thrown away as students cleared their trays at lunch prompting the question of where that waste went. As students began learning about landfills, they also learned about the negative effects waste could have on the environment. Inspired to do better, Mrs. Simms along with 4th graders designed and built a compost pile on campus. Of course, learning about composting introduced a whole new facet of science – the biological role of decomposition, bugs, and microscopic organisms. To make sure the compost pile was a healthy addition to campus, first graders constructed bug hotels, placing them near the compost pile to attract diverse microorganisms that would help decompose the waste pile. As students constructed these small hotels made of wood and other natural materials, they learned about the carbon and nitrogen cycles that take place as food decomposes.
Now, as Lower School students clear their trays, they know fruits and vegetables that would have otherwise been thrown away can actually be added to the compost pile, which in turn will be used to help nurture and grow future gardens. The environmental impact these students have made can already be seen. At the beginning of the year, we were producing 50 pounds of trash each week in the lunchroom; we are now down to 30 pounds of waste each week. Circling back to the lessons centered on food insecurity, Mrs. Simms hopes that students not only take an active role in reducing food waste in their own lives but also think creatively about how they might grow, harvest, and deliver food to agencies in our local community that are in need.
PHASE III: BUILDING A BETTER FUTURE
Beginning in our own lunchroom was a great first step in helping our students understand how food impacts our world, but Mrs. Simms was interested in taking the lesson further. She hoped to create numerous opportunities for students to engage in hands-on design projects. Having given our first graders the opportunity to build bug hotels to support our compost site, she decided to present our older students with a chance to build towards increased biodiversity on our campus as well.
Thus, our second graders began construction of pollinators, habitats that butterflies could use across campus. These pollinators were built in the Lammers Innovation Lab using all of the tools and resources that facility offers, allowing our students to build the skills that space promotes. Teams of second graders hunched over their blueprints detailing how to construct the pollinators, innovating while asking each other e, “Do you think I could put the boards on like this?” or “I wonder if we could use another type of material?” Getting to use the power tools was especially exciting for these students. Second grader Davis Moeller smiles remembering his contribution, “As we worked together on the bee houses, we took turns using the drill. It was really fun!” As the teams collaborated with one another, their confidence in themselves and each other grew.
With their pollinator habitats built, the second graders presented to our pre-kindergartners about their project and how the pollinator habitats will be used across campus. Our Upper School Environmental Science class, led by Mr. David Trombold, are currently working on identifying the best location for the pollinators to be installed. A similar methodology will be used this semester as third graders build birdhouses and fourth graders build habitats for bats. This year-long pollinator project is a stepping stone as Mrs. Simms looks towards the next phase in this program: building even more gardens across campus which in turn will produce more food to help more local community members in need.
These projects, when layered together, have opened up our students’ minds to the possibility that they can change our campus, our community, and ultimately our world. Mrs. Simms attributes much of the success of the program thus far to both our students, who thrive when challenged, and the educational environment Wichita Collegiate cultivates. Teachers are given the opportunity to go beyond the curriculum, and in doing so, encourage students to also think big. Our students, encouraged to take responsibility for their own food choices, have been inspired to grow the kind of food that will best support their community. Enthusiasm for these projects extends beyond our student body. Mrs. Simms loves to hear parents describe family dinner table conversations prompted by what their children have learned in science, and then see the excitement on those same children’s faces when they skip into her classroom the next morning ready to share an idea for a new project that could better help their community.
When asked if there have been any surprises on this educational journey, Mrs. Simms shares, “I am surprised daily by the curiosity of our students. They want to know more, learn more, study more ... I have several students who always go above and beyond. This is what WCS is all about: creating an environment where students can thrive and become their best selves. The students I teach don't quite know who they are yet, but they are learning what they like and what they are most interested in. My job is to help lead them down this educational journey that will one day lead them to a career. I hope that I am in a small way helping my students be better Global Guardians and caretakers of our Earth, showing them there are new and exciting ways to think and learn.”