AUBURN, Maine — On the first day of school vacation Monday, the sound of power tools buzzed, breaking the silence at the Auburn Middle School.
Holding drills and wearing safety glasses, Crystal Lopes and Hannah Thistle, along with 28 other 13- and 14-year-old students, volunteered to build boxes for the school’s new vegetable garden.
As teacher Jim Rowe supervised, some cut boards, some drilled, some nailed. Soon students Lucas Phillips and Thomas Meuse helped teachers Charlotte Palmer and Nicole Melcher carry the first box outside, positioning it near the new greenhouse.
As part of its Going Green projects, Auburn Middle School is joining a growing number of schools involving students in gardening. The garden is also part of the school’s new use of expeditionary, or hands-on, community-based learning.
In Palmer’s class are racks holding tomatoes, peppers, basil, oregano, zucchini and cucumber seedlings under grow lights donated by the Auburn Police Department. The greenhouse is empty. “It’s still too cold,” Palmer said.
Last fall, Palmer and Melcher brought students to the Common Ground Country Fair to help them learn about gardening. “We’ve done a lot of lessons on sustainability, what agriculture looks like,” Palmer said. From assembling the greenhouse to getting the seedlings started, “the students have owned the whole process,” she said. Teachers want students to learn to raise their own food and be self-sufficient.
Melcher, who teaches science, said she’s using agriculture to teach ecology, sustainability and “the importance of having nutrition and fresh vegetables.” Lessons will include outdoor classrooms.
She’s introducing students to container gardening. “So many live in apartments and don’t have a lot of space.”
Palmer is working with Jim Chandler of the Auburn Land Lab on composting.
“Chandler asked if I would be interested doing composting. … I said absolutely. We have one small group working after school. We’ve created worm bins,” she said.
She hopes to start composting middle school cafeteria waste.
“We won’t be able to use all of it,” but students should have a better idea “of what they’re throwing away.”
The Student Council initiated a recycling program. Students and Palmer collect paper from other schools. Last week, the middle school held an “all-call” Thursday, an announcement telling students to bring down their recyclables. “I could not believe how many kids came down,” she said. “We had students from every classroom bringing their bin down and sorting it all out.” The school also recycles milk containers.
Students are receptive to environmental work, Melcher said. “They get very upset when people don’t take action about supporting and sustaining our planet.”
Palmer said her students “are excited about watching things grow.” When she gave them aged manure to use, “at first they were grossed out,” she said, until they better understood the life cycle and what goes into agriculture.
“You can see the light bulbs going on,” she said. Getting their hands in the dirt “is an application, as opposed to learning about it on a piece of paper.”
Student Hannah Thistle said volunteering Monday morning was worth giving up vacation time. It’s important, she said, to know where food comes from, how it was grown, and how to garden. “When you grow up you’ll know how to do it.”
Eighth-grader Lopes said the vegetables students grow will be used in the cafeteria this fall. “It’s important getting all these fresh vegetables donated to the kitchen, having healthier and fresh food.”
The garden is a good idea environmentally, she said. Her teacher has told her that plants produce oxygen that help counter greenhouse gases. “You could have grass sitting there and dying, but we’re actually doing something with it, planting and growing food,” Lopes said.
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