Urban Gardening

The Last Year of an Environmental Educator’s Career: Reflections on Sustainability

Introduction by Kathleen L. Fenton

I’m fortunate to manage EPA Region 7’s Environmental Education Program. I get to meet folks like Dr. Michael Hotz, who work tirelessly to ensure today’s students understand, value and enjoy learning. Dr. Hotz is one of those exceptional teachers who students remember long after they’ve graduated, an educator who makes a lasting impression. Most importantly, he’s influenced students to realize that science, technology, engineering and math are subjects they can understand and have fun doing, while actually learning – and it’s knowledge they can keep and use for years to come.

Dr. Hotz is a model teacher and representative of many fine teachers across the Heartland. I had the honor of watching him receive his Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators. I wish him well on his career’s final year, and hope the teaching profession can employ more teachers like him. Thank you, Dr. Hotz, for an impressive 31-year run!

By Dr. Michael Hotz

As I begin the last of 31 years of teaching young people, I reflect on sustainability. Through the last 19 years in the Kansas City, Kan., Public School District, I’ve had the opportunity to create a school garden/outdoor classroom, conduct long-term watershed studies, create an aquaponic system where tilapia grow and greenhouse plants are nourished, and conduct energy audits to save more than $100,000 in utility costs.

Dr. Hotz and his wife, Catherine, at PIAEE award ceremony

Dr. Hotz and his wife, Catherine, at PIAEE award ceremony

It’s been a great experience, and I have an EPA employee to thank for, as she says, “planting the seed of ideas.” Roberta Vogel-Luetung sat with me as we brainstormed ideas over 15 years ago at an in-service meeting conducted by EPA. We discussed how an empty, unused courtyard at Wyandotte High School could be used for teaching environmental content. Since that meeting, the courtyard has been turned into a school garden and outdoor classroom with 20 raised beds, an automated sprinkler system, all-weather walkways, flower gardens, a water feature, and composting facilities.

Students were challenged and stepped up to the task of designing, building, and financing this area, which they also help plant and maintain. These students, as well as others, have reaped the fruits of their labors. Joanne Postawait has taken over the responsibility of planting and harvesting this area, while I continue to help with its hardscape maintenance.

School garden/outdoor classroom

School garden/outdoor classroom

The EPA video “After the Storm” inspired me to create a “challenge-based” learning experience for the Small Learning Community in which I teach at Wyandotte High School. Through collaboration with my fellow educators Ms. Hornberger (Math), Mr. Willard (English), and Mr. Zak (Engineering), we created a long-term project around Big Eleven Lake in Kansas City, Kan.

Each year, students study their watershed in my science classes. We bring the studies down to the local level of what the students can do themselves to help the watershed. They’ve been taught how to conduct water testing, and then go into the field and test Big Eleven Lake, Kaw Point (at the convergence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers), and other lakes in the area. Comparisons are made and reported to the Kansas Health Department. All of the curriculums are tied into this experience. Standardized test scores demonstrate that significant gains have been made because of this program.

I was also a member of the EPA Urban Lake Testing Group where EPA provided water testing techniques and equipment, and samples were sent to EPA laboratories for analysis. I was then able to train residents of the Big Eleven Lake area, who belong to the Struggler’s Hill/Roots Neighborhood Association, to do the water testing. These neighborhood association members were helpful in sharing their lives and experiences around the lake, and the EPA employees were just as helpful with the testing and field work.

Aquaponics system

Aquaponic system

We developed a pilot aquaponics program where tilapia are grown. The water from these tanks is sent to trays where plants are grown, establishing a symbiotic relationship between the fish and plants. Wastes from the tilapia nourish tomatoes, herbs, squash, and other plants in our greenhouse. This type of organic, non-polluting growing system is 10 times more efficient than traditional methods and saves water.

I initiated energy audits and plans to save on utility costs. Students use testing equipment to monitor lights, electricity, and temperature and then develop plans to reduce usage. More than $100,000 was saved in a single year. A recycling program also is in place, which is operated by our Environmental Club and is part of the Green Schools Program of the Kansas Association for Conservation and Environmental Education.

Aquaponic system

Aquaponic system

These programs helped me to be recognized as a proud winner of the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators (PIAEE). EPA and its employees have been instrumental in the development and teaching of these programs.

I am honored that my former student and 2015 graduate, Karina Macias Leyva, wrote the following in her letter of recommendation for the award: “When Dr. Hotz teaches anything that is part of the environmental education field, even with the smallest projects, he inspires students to gain awareness of their environment and acquire knowledge, skills, values, experiences and also determination, which will enable students to act individually and collectively that will lead to solving present and future environmental problems.”

I’m currently working with Towson University, investigating how environmental education happens in and out of the classroom and what impacts student understanding and attitudes about the environment and environmental science.

As I plan for this final year of teaching, my major concern is sustaining these programs. I’m training and encouraging other teachers at Wyandotte High School to keep them going. Our environmental future depends upon the teaching of young minds here in the Heartland and across the nation.

I have enjoyed and am thankful for the relationships that have been made with EPA, and I look forward to working with all of you at EPA during this final year.

About the Introducer: Kathleen Fenton has worked with communities on environmental health issues, environmental education grants, and Healthy Schools projects for over 20 years.

About the Author: Dr. Michael Hotz has been a teacher at Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kan., for the past 19 years, as part of his 31-year teaching career. He was awarded the PIAEE in 2015.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Cultivate KC

By Holly Mehl


Earlier this year I had the opportunity to create maps for a project I felt proud to help out with, the Urban Grown Farms and Gardens Tour in Kansas City.  Every other June, Cultivate Kansas City hosts the tour, which showcases urban agriculture across the metro area via a full week of events. The organization’s mission is to be “a catalyst for the production and consumption of locally grown food in Kansas City neighborhoods.”   This year’s event was the fifth biennial tour. Every tour has gotten better and every time more farms have joined in, showing a refreshing, tasty and sustainable trend happening in our area.

Cultivate Kansas City’s website is colorful and informative and is a feast for the visual senses, as you will see by going here.

Part of Cultivate Kansas City’s vision is to turn unused spaces into food producing farms and gardens, which not only provide sustainable, community engaged places to buy healthy food, but also beautifies neighborhoods by often redeveloping blighted areas.  This is something I can get behind and I’ve already recommended that my church’s garden – from which vegetables are donated to local pantries – become a part of the tour in 2015.

EPA actively promotes Urban agriculture as part of our Brownfields program.  Urban agriculture projects can help bind contaminants while providing further benefits to the property and surrounding community. An urban farm or community garden can improve the environment, reduce greenhouse emissions, and improve access to healthy, locally grown food. Other possible benefits include promoting health and physical activity, increasing community connections, and attracting economic activity.  You can check out more by visiting EPA’s website, read our Interim Guidelines for Safe Gardening Practices.

The tour maps are no longer posted on the website since the tour is now over, but synopses and pictures of the tour’s farms and gardens are still highlighted there, as is a little video that uses the tour’s primary map as background.

Below is the map handed out to tour participants who arrived at any of the hub locations to buy tour tickets.  Nearly 60 farms and gardens on the tour are shown in four different geographic areas called Veggie Zones.  The vegetable symbols on the map represent the farm/garden locations.

This was a fun map to make, but even more fun was visiting these vibrant, beautiful places (run by vibrant and beautiful people), all of which help to make Kansas City’s future much more promising for all of us.


About the Author: Holly Mehl is an ecologist for EPA Region 7 who helps with water monitoring in the field and performs mapping for EPA Region 7’s program offices when in the office.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.