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WAKE FOREST — After sixth-grade students streamed into the garden classroom at Envision Science Academy on Wednesday, they immediately and enthusiastically set to work — grabbing hoes, investigating crop growth or starting construction on a cover to protect some vegetables from frost.
The adults with them weren’t supervisors or instructors as much as they were helpers. Environmental STEAM teacher Jennifer Byrd often kept her distance, letting her students decide for themselves what needed to be worked on.
“Last night I was researching the symptoms of what an aphid could do,” student Madilynn Ontiveros told some of her classmates as they investigated an infestation of bugs on several kale leaves. “They can make the leaves wilt and turn yellow.”
Mbelu Walton, coordinator of the garden project, pointed out that it rained Tuesday night, after some students treated the Kale in attempt to kill the aphids.
“So it might have washed off,” several kids concluded at the same time.
As the conversation continued, the students decided they should wipe off the aphid eggs from the leaves with their hands and apply more spray — a mixture of soap and water, suggested by some students earlier in the week after researching online.
Officials at Envision, a K-8 charter school in Wake Forest, say the school is focused on STEAM — that’s science, technology, engineering, arts and math. In every classroom, and in particular in the new garden classroom, students are encouraged to be self-starters.
The students say they love having that opportunity.
“I like hands-on, so this is actually really fun for me,” student Lauren Brooks said. “There’s a lot of creative stuff that we do.”
The students were involved in planning the garden space earlier this year, then helping construct the planters for the bok choy, peppers, herbs, kale, radishes and other crops. The entire project, from irrigating the plants to cooking the food, is done with student involvement.
Bill Prentice, the school’s STEAM curriculum coach, said Envision has long wanted a garden. Things came together earlier this year when Cigna, a worldwide health services company, awarded the school a $20,000 grant through its Community Ambassador Fellowship program.
Walton, who is also a Cigna employee, worked with the school to apply for the grant. As part of the award, Walton was given a three-month paid leave of absence to work at Envision and make the garden a reality. Walton has two children enrolled at Envision.
Walton said she was motivated to start the garden to improve kid’s eating habits.
“Kids eat a lot of junk,” Walton said. “How can we encourage more healthy eating? The thought is by getting their hands dirty and being involved in something that they may encourage them to eat what they plant, hopefully, or at least try it.”
Recently, select students were treated to red pancakes made of blended beats. About half of them loved it, Walton said.
Prentice agreed that “it’s exciting to see the kids actually excited to try the vegetables that they may normally turn their noses up to.”
In addition to healthy eating, the garden encourages outdoor activity. Prentice added that the garden helps to teach math through measuring distances and eventually selling produce and calculating prices.
The school plans to use the garden to donate to local food banks, Prentice said. The project has also involved several community groups which have donated seeds and supplies or came in to teach lessons about gardening, cooking and nutrition.
Those community partnerships will be important, Prentice said, once the grant money runs out. The school plans to continue to garden into future years and fill it with new crops next spring.
For now, the students are focused on making sure the vegetables already in the garden grow into something they will be proud of.
“My favorite part of doing something is the end result,” said Ontiveros, the student who had researched the effect of aphids. “I’m excited because we already have a lot of plants. We have our peppers, our bok choy, our kale, and it’s just really starting to come together — minus the infestation. That was a minor setback. But once we fix it, then it could really turn out to be something beautiful.”
The public is invited to attend Envision Science Academy’s fall festival next Saturday. The school will offer guided tours of its garden classroom and garden art station for the first time.
The event will be from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Nov. 2.