by MATT COBBLE
Photo courtesy of agclassroom.org
When the National Agriculture in the Classroom Organization (NAITCO) announced the 2019 winners of their National Excellence in Teaching About Agriculture award, one winner stood out from the pack.
A team of teachers from Millennia Gardens Elementary School in Orlando – Dawn Chehab, Joshua Garrett, John Martinez, Erica Roberts and Nicholas Zebroski – were recognized for their efforts in the school’s Eco Club, teaching 80 third through fifth grade students topics such as self-advocacy, stewardship, and community through the lens of agriculture.
Eco Club’s origins go back to 2016, when the founding teachers applied for and received a grant from the State Farm Youth Advisory Board for nearly 68 thousand dollars. “The grant was quite ambitious,” Garret says. “We were all shocked when we won.”
Among the first projects Eco Club tackled was a large-scale hydroponics garden. Eco Club’s hydroponic garden contains fifty towers, each of which can hold twenty romaine lettuce plants.
A community partner suggested the lettuce could be given to the manatee rescue at SeaWorld Orlando. This formed a partnership between the theme park and the Eco Club. The students, who wanted an overnight trip to SeaWorld, would grow the lettuce for the rescue, and SeaWorld would keep track of the value of lettuce submitted, until the cost of the trip was offset (Chehab admitted that SeaWorld planned to give the kids the trip either way; the ‘cost-offset’ exercise was to reinforce the budgeting lessons the students had been learning through the club).
The budgeting lessons for the students of Eco Club extend throughout the projects the club runs. “All of the kids have access to our budgeting forms through Google Drive,” Roberts explains. Which is especially relevant for Eco Club – all of the club’s activities, materials, resources, and even stipends for the five teachers are funded from grants and donations, not school board dollars. “That’s something unique to us,” Chehab said.
Through the various donations they have received and partnerships they have made in the past three years, Eco Club has been able to take on a wide array of projects.
Millennia Gardens opened shortly after the Pulse attack in downtown Orlando, and the Eco Club wanted to do a special project as a tribute to the victims. They created a butterfly garden, with assistance from the Orange County University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) and materials donated by local businesses. Once the gardens were planted, they placed rocks throughout, each one painted with the name of one of the victims. This butterfly garden was certified by the National Wildlife Foundation as an outdoor habitat and a protected space.
Through their partnership with SeaWorld Orlando, Eco Club students were able to participate in the Trash 2 Trends fashion show. Trash 2 Trends is a fundraiser for Keep Orlando Beautiful in which local designers compete by creating wearable works of art from materials that would otherwise be discarded. SeaWorld, a sponsor of the show, invited Eco Club students to submit an entry – the only school to enter. The students were even able to Skype into the event and watch live.
To practice healthy eating and sustainability, Eco Club participates in an eight-week cooking course. Students learn knife skills, the importance of cleanliness in the kitchen, and a variety of recipes using the various ingredients grown in their gardens. At the end of the course, the club partners with the Emeril Lagasse Edible Education Center for a “Top Chef” style cookoff.
Eco Club was also able to set up a quarter-acre wildlife sanctuary which was certified as an outdoor sanctuary by the National Wildlife Foundation and is a registered Monarch Waystation. The sanctuary contains a frog pond, an osprey perch, and a bat house, in addition to a series of benches arranged so that the area could be used as an outdoor classroom. Adjoining the sanctuary is a habitat for ‘The Flash,’ a rescue gopher tortoise, making Millennia Gardens the only school licensed to house a gopher tortoise.
Working within the Everglades Literacy toolkit through the Everglades Foundation, students learned the importance of maintaining and restoring Florida’s waterways. Upon completion of the program, fifty students were invited to go camping in the Everglades, many of whom were camping for the first time. The experience inspired one of Eco Club’s newest projects; a playground themed to the Everglades. The project will include a path children will travel made to represent a droplet’s journey from the headwaters of the Kissimmee River, through the Florida landscape, ending in the Everglades. Students will find stations with native plants and signs showing various landmarks and animals seen along the way, each tied to Florida’s curriculum standards.
Reflecting on everything they had accomplished through Eco Club in the past three years, Chehab admits “we had no idea how big [Eco Club] would get.” However, what is clear is that Eco Club will continue to inspire students to leave their mark on the world.
You can keep up with Eco Club’s projects by visiting their website, EcoClubFL.com, or by following EcoClubFL on Facebook and Twitter.