February 23, 2012 in Washington Voices

Students turn science lesson into custom seasoning blend

By The Spokesman-Review
Dan Pelle photoBuy this photo

Teacher Robbie Robinson, second from left, stands in a greenhouse with Harmony High School students, from left, Satieva Ankley, Josh Armstrong, Chris Kinyon, Cody Buchanan and Franki Turner.
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An environmental science lesson at Harmony High School is turning into an entrepreneurial venture for the staff and students.

Two years ago, teacher Robbie Robinson looked to start an environmental science class for the alternative high school in the East Valley School District. The students’ first project was to build their own greenhouse. What grew from that is Harmony Hot Pepper, a ground and very hot blend of NuMex, Pretty in Purple, jalapeño and habanero peppers. The school hopes to sell the pepper in local farmers markets

“We stood through rain and snow to put this sucker up,” Robinson said of the greenhouse.

Some of the students had never built anything before, beyond helping grandparents with smaller projects.

“We had a big group of people working out here,” said Chris Kinyon, a sophomore at the school.

Robinson said the intent was always to grow peppers. He and his wife, Cindy, grow peppers at home and he has made his own hot pepper blend.

But the weather didn’t cooperate last year, with cold temperatures up until June. Still, during the summer months, Robinson offered his students extra credit to tend the plants, which had been moved to East Valley High School’s community garden.

“A lot of them took a lot of pride in it,” Robinson said.

Cody Buchanan, a senior, said he came by the garden every day to water the plants. He particularly enjoyed watching the stages of growth in the plants.

The group was able to grow 124 plants which produced 3 1/2 pounds of peppers. Robinson’s wife donated some of her own peppers to the project. He dried them in paper bags at room temperature and when they were ready, used a coffee grinder to reduce them to a powder.

The marketing lesson of the project started to take shape. Student Hunter Ogle-Vallone designed the logo and the class created labels. The math class is researching the cost to make the pepper to determine the market price. They are also looking into finding ways to sell Harmony Hot Pepper at farmers markets and area grocery stores.

“We’re not looking to make a huge profit on it,” said Brandon Blize, math teacher.

Jabez Harlan’s documentary class made a movie that followed students from greenhouse to completed product. His class is also working on setting up a website to sell the pepper online and to share recipes using the product.

Harmony High School is a program residing within East Valley’s Washington Academy of Arts and Technology, which offers alternative learning programs for students with educational needs that fall outside of a traditional high school. There is a home-schooling program, online learning, contract-based education and Harmony High School, which is located in an outbuilding on the campus of East Valley High School.

Principal Barbara Cruse said students who attend Harmony fall into many categories. They could be credit deficient, on track to graduate or just want to experience the benefit of a small school. There are 50 to 60 students attending Harmony this year.

The students and staff only made a small batch of the pepper when they returned to school last September. There was enough for 12 three-ounce bottles which they have distributed to members of the community as samples.

Harmony Hot Pepper won’t be on the shelves for a while. After this growing season, they hope to make twice as much pepper as last year. Robinson said the proceeds will benefit Washington Academy of Arts and Technology. He also hopes to get to the point when the students can grow ghost peppers, also known as Bhut jolokia peppers, one of the hottest peppers in the world – so hot, in fact, students would need to wear respirators for protection to grind it.

But the students are still working on the project, growing and tending their plants.

“It’s more than just going into a classroom and learning about environmental science,” Kinyon said.

“You get to see it,” said Satieva Ankley, a junior. “It was teamwork. It’s just a fun experience.”

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