STEMsational Media

  • A student observes the new virtual grow tower at Roncalli Urban Farming is Taking Root

    at Roncalli STEM Academy


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    Through a partnership with the Pueblo Food Project, and with a standards-driven curriculum serving as the foundation, Roncalli STEM Academy seventh-graders will get an enlightening, first-hand look at how their (edible) gardens grow. 

    As its title indicates, Urban Agriculture is the practice of growing and cultivating food in or around non-rural areas traditionally associated with farming.

    From an educational standpoint, Urban Agriculture provides students with the opportunity to apply scientific principles in the growing of fresh foods. This in turn creates a deeper awareness and appreciation of the intricate food production process while reinforcing the benefits of healthy eating and environmental stewardship.

    This mission is at the heart of the work of the Pueblo Food Project, which in 2020, established “edible landscapes” in the Downtown area. So when Roncalli Principal Michael Cservenak saw Urban Farming as an ideal addition to the school’s project-based learning approach, the Pueblo Food Project was the natural choice for a partnering agency.

    “I’ve been dreaming about this ever since seeing what was going on with the Green Bronx Machine several years ago,” Principal Cservenak said. “And I knew it would do so much for our school and our kids. I’m super excited that the kids will be learning about botany and plant life, and then be able to take it home and start their own gardens.

    “How we grow food, where we grow food, and what food we grow has a greater impact than the action itself.”

    Monique Marez, the coordinator of the Pueblo Food Project, believes the project “will expose the need for this in our community. We are excited that Roncalli is the pioneer and our hope is that this is a pilot program that can spread across the district.”

    As science is an integral part of food production, Ms. Marez said Roncalli is a fitting site for the endeavor to take seed.

    “It’s not just as easy as going to a store,” she said of the process of food production. “Students will be learning about how all of the choices they make impacts a very complicated system. For these young folks to get a taste of that so early on, and to provide them with the tools to become more aware and self-reliant for some of their food supplies, is an incredible gift.”

    The school-based farm will comprise 10 vertical hydroponic “grow towers” built by the students, in which water, oxygen, and ample lighting will serve as growth catalysts for lettuce, Swiss chard, herbs, and more.

    The curriculum was developed by Roncalli’s Science Team in conjunction with Dr. Lisa Wachtel, a longtime educator, administrator, and current Master Gardener, and Ms. Marez.

    The lessons will center on locally grown products, the importance of water in farming, Pueblo’s ecosystem, how seeds are grown, and related issues.

    “This is science education,” noted Dr. Wachtel. “It’s meant to be relevant and local, which we believe will serve as a window that enables the world of science to become real. We’re connecting all the science standards in a way that the students can participate in a hands-on manner to understand how life works, starting with a seed.”

    “What’s exciting about this curriculum is it’s rigorous, standards-driven, and hands-on,” Principal Cservenak added. “And it’s open-source, so if another middle school wants to do this project, it’s there for them, and it’s free.”

    Although she has grown strawberries and herbs at her home, seventh-grader Savannah Gonzales said school-based Urban Farming is an experience she is looking forward to engaging in.

    “I’ve never done something like this before,” she said. “I really don’t know what to expect, but I’m excited to learn.”

    Once the green goods are grown, the Roncalli farmers will be given the opportunity to not only take the fresh wares home but donate the fruits of their labors to the less fortunate in the community.

    The latter, project coordinators point out, is another important curriculum lesson: that of empathy and one’s connection to the whole of the community.