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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Education

‘Is that a robot?’ Tower gardens growing in Spokane Public Schools teach STEM, practical skills

March 12, 2023 Updated Sun., March 12, 2023 at 9:12 a.m.

Yasuhara Middle School sixth-graders Hussein Abbas, left, and Kevin Molina set plants into the tower garden at the school on Thursday.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
Yasuhara Middle School sixth-graders Hussein Abbas, left, and Kevin Molina set plants into the tower garden at the school on Thursday. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

The new garden at Yasuhara Middle School has no dirt and looks more like something out of a sci-fi novel than the Farmer’s Almanac.

“I found a room where we get lots of natural light,” said Cameron Burns, a seventh-grade science teacher at the new school off North Foothills Drive. “Walking down that main common, students have shown some interest. They’re like, ‘Is that a robot?’ ”

It’s a tower garden, an indoor growing structure that Spokane Public Schools has rolled out to elementary and now secondary schools in the district.

The goal is to develop an interest in plant life and water conservation in areas where it’s difficult to maintain a traditional garden in Spokane, said Scott Kerwien, executive director of student success at the district. The tower gardens have the added benefit of pushing students to learn practical skills with their hands, rather than reading out of textbooks, and teachers at Yasuhara have employed the new teaching tool in different ways tailored to students.

“We’re excited, because it’s hands-on learning,” said Kerwien, who brought the idea of the tower gardens to Spokane by way of a school district in Cincinnati that had incorporated the structures into its STEM curriculum. “We want the students to have that opportunity.”

Last week, students from several classrooms at Yasuhara began transferring seed starts to the tower, where they’ll spend the next six to eight weeks growing into mature plants for harvest. The plants grow in Rockwool and are fed nutrients in a solution that is pumped from a reservoir at its base to cascade down onto the root system below.

Burns said leafy greens work best in the tower, so the students have planted lettuce, kale and some herbs. They’ve also planted some beans and peas toward the base of the tower, which he expects students will be able to eat fresh from the garden at harvest.

“What’s great is when the lettuce grows out, you can cut it off right into the basket, right there,” Burns said.

Lonna Gately teaches blind and visually impaired students at Yasuhara. Her students were blown away by how quickly their pea plant sprouted before even being planted in the tower, its stem already jutting a couple of inches into the air. The students were able to learn about the different types of seeds, and their sizes, by holding them in their hands, Gately said.

“Then, they get to eat the final product,” she said. “They don’t get to experience that out in the world.”

Richelle Hoenike’s students were among those who planted starters in the tower at Yasuhara last week. Hoenike is a designed instruction teacher, a type of special education instructor whose kids typically stay with her throughout the day to learn communication and social skills.

“It also leads to career exploration,” said Hoenike, who taught 12 years at Garry Middle School, where she helped set up a rooftop greenhouse program that ended with students growing their own crops to take home and sell to staff members.

The tower garden seems like an extension of that type of instruction, Hoenike said.

“The experience became bigger each year,” Hoenike said. “I’m hoping that continues at Yasuhara.”

Other teachers have approached the garden with their own learning goals in mind.

Lizzy Sanders and Bobbi Konshuck, who work in project-based learning and the humanities, respectively, are working with community partners on ways the gardens might address food deserts around town. Kelly Marsh, whose multilingual students are developing English-speaking skills, wrote out instructive paragraphs on planting to improve their reading and writing skills.

The district purchased 20 of the tower gardens with money that had been provided to the district to support learning following the COVID-19 pandemic, Kerwien said. The first was delivered to Longfellow Elementary, where students used the tower to grow peppers for salsa, he said.

“It’s been a nice opportunity. At elementary schools, there’s a science specialist, and that’s where the garden is,” Kerwien said.

Burns hopes the school’s students and staff will take ownership of Yasuhara’s tower garden.

“I don’t want it to just sit and live in my room,” he said.

If the idea catches on, he could see students learning from each other about how to grow food on the futuristic-looking structures.

“We want it to be something that’s a very inclusive part of our school, where we’re all involved in using it and helping out,” he said.

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