Last-minute purchase by Bangor science department has real yields for students

Posted June 28, 2011, at 7:40 p.m.
Bangor High School students Tiffney Strout, Nick Dumond, Shane Rinks and Mike Mixon (from left to right) work with teacher Monique Gautreau in the more common composting of materials. The composted soil is then used to grow vegetables in the school's garden.
Bangor High School students Tiffney Strout, Nick Dumond, Shane Rinks and Mike Mixon (from left to right) work with teacher Monique Gautreau in the more common composting of materials. The composted soil is then used to grow vegetables in the school's garden.
Bangor High School students Michael Mixon (left) and Shane Rinks show the results of what leftover scraps and hungry worms can produce to the tune of 1 ton per year. The composted soil is then used to grow vegetables in the school's garden.
Bangor High School students Michael Mixon (left) and Shane Rinks show the results of what leftover scraps and hungry worms can produce to the tune of 1 ton per year. The composted soil is then used to grow vegetables in the school's garden.

BANGOR, Maine — A last-minute effort to find something to spend some leftover department funds on has led to an invaluable science project at Bangor High School — as well as a vegetable garden.

“Back in 2008, Cary James, our science department head, said he had $500 left over in the department budget, but we only had 24 hours to find something to spend it on or we’d lose the funds,” said Ted Taylor, a science teacher at Bangor High. “I looked through a project catalog and found something I thought we could get a lot of use out of. The whole thing cost about $380.”

That “thing” was a 2-foot-high, 1½ -foot-wide, multitiered, cylindrical Can-O-Worms vermi composter.

A vermi composter is a container filled with earthworms and a mix of shredded newspaper and cardboard bedding, cornmeal and organic waste. Over time, the worms do their work and the mix is turned into vermi compost — a nutrient-rich, natural fertilizer and soil conditioner.

“When we first started this, we had one that would process 5 to 10 pounds of waste a week,” said Taylor. “Now we’re using 50 pounds of organic waste a week and half that during the winter [when cold slows worm activity]. We had to ask Hannaford to help us get extra organic waste.”

Thanks to a $5,000 grant awarded to Taylor’s project by Toshiba Corp. this year, he was able to buy a new 3-foot-tall, 2-foot-wide Wigwam vermi composter and extra sensor equipment that has increased the project’s composting capability to a ton of rich compost per year.

While other Maine schools have similar programs and projects, Taylor believes Bangor is the only one with a midscale vermi composter.

“We do a lot with soils and minerals in our class, so I thought it would be a great earth science teaching aid,” said the teacher and former environmental consultant. “I had no idea what this was going to lead to, so, yeah, it has kind of blown me away with all the types of things this has blossomed into.”

It seems the sky’s the limit for the underground enterprise.

What originally was seen simply as a way to give students another hands-on, practical resource for understanding composting and organic recycling and gardening has turned into a project that has brought together different classes, departments, students and faculty members.

Behavior specialist and education technician Monique Gautreau and several of her special education students have become quite involved in helping maintain the vermi composter and an outdoor therma composter, which functions like a traditional backyard compost plot. They also help with the gardening.

“They really love it, and have taken kind of a proprietary interest in it,” said Gautreau. “You can see the pride they have from being a part of it.”

Everyone involved in the project works together to limit organic waste, turn it into a valuable product, and use it to grow vegetables on school grounds. The vegetables then are prepared by the school kitchen and served to the same students who helped create the compost and tend the garden that creates the produce.

“It’s been great for our special education students. It’s been so great for our whole science program,” Taylor said. “It’s really been a practical link to get kids excited about science.”

And it doesn’t stop there. Taylor has spoken to area Rotary clubs and church groups about his project, as well as elementary and middle school classes.

“We even had students come in and get worms for ice fishing as well,” Taylor said.

The garden planted in a Bangor High courtyard previously covered with crab grass, weeds, bushes and a couple of trees already is blossoming above the compost-enriched soil.

Now it looks more like a public park featuring a 15-by-20-foot plot of green, red, orange and yellow organic growth. In one corner, right next to plump, purple-red radishes, sprout Walla Walla sweet onions. There are also sunflowers, peppers, spinach, deep-green lettuce leaves and green beans.

Students also planted watermelon seeds in a separate plot.

The garden is of particular interest to students such as Monica Wilbur, who recently finished her sophomore year.

“Next year we’re going to start a gardening club so we can have more time to work on it,” said Wilbur.

Wilbur has another reason for liking to work in the garden.

“The actual worm part wasn’t too exciting to me,” said Wilbur, one of 20 students involved with the project. “We have to count them and sometimes they’d clump together. We’d have to separate them and that was kind of gross, but it was interesting to me that there was this practical process for getting rid of waste.”

Much of the produce will be ready for harvest as early as August.

“We’ve also learned how to do a start-up business, and one of our students created a logo for stickers we can put on the bags of compost we’d like to start selling … this summer,” Taylor said. “We have about 40 pounds of finished compost right now.”

“In all honesty, I’m not done yet,” he added. “We have some future plans. I could see someone making this a business.”

In the meantime, the worms are bringing all kinds of people together at Bangor High.

As hands-on as the project is, it’s also relatively low-maintenance and cheap, especially given the low cost of manpower — and other species.

“Worms work hard, they don’t fuss, and they work cheap,” Taylor said with a laugh. “But they are a little fussy. They don’t really like meat, they don’t really go for condiments that much, and they’re not big on citrus fruits because of the acid content.”

Shane Rinks just graduated from the special education program, but the 20-year-old still will be spending time at school this summer so he can continue helping with the composting and gardening.

“I’ll probably be here every day,” he said enthusiastically.

The knowledge he has gained from the project is obvious when listening to him talk about what the worms prefer.

“They love melons and stuff like pumpkins and squash, and they love coffee grounds, too,” Rinks said. “They even like crushed egg shells.”

The students have learned to pay attention to worms’ behavior and what it can tell them.

“We record things each day like temperature, gas content, and what it looks like in terms of where the worms are congregating,” said Gautreau. “If they’re moving away from an area, the kids know there’s stuff there they don’t like and they can remove it. They can also put more of something in based on what they’re going after.”

Because of his experience with the science class composting project, recent graduate Ben Claeson is thinking about concentrating on environmental law while working on a degree in political science at Bates College in Lewiston.

“This class gave me more knowledge on the subject and that helped focus my interest more, “ Claeson said. “I also plan to take a lot of earth science classes, too. I’m not typically a science student, but earth science is now of more interest to me.”

And the honors student has a simple invertebrate to thank for his newfound interest in science.

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