EPA Awards

‘Wow, they did all that?’ – Nebraska Teacher, Students Earn National Honors for Community Efforts

Introduction by Kathleen L. Fenton

In our last blog, we proudly featured Shawn Graham and his science students with Omaha Public Schools’ Accelere Program. He’s one of only 10 teachers in the U.S. to receive the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators. Region 7 spotlights Shawn and his students once more in this second blog, where he continues to describe their nationally-applauded efforts.

Winners of Good Earth Steward Award on Accelere's Hydroponics Team: Shawn Graham, Solangel Feuntes-Vasquez and Gabriela Hernandez, with EPA presenter Kathleen Fenton; Brittany Merrill and Breonna Berry; Colton Hannon and Madyson Dennis

Winners of Good Earth Steward Award on Accelere’s Hydroponics Team – top row: Shawn Graham, Solangel Feuntes-Vasquez and Gabriela Hernandez, with EPA presenter Kathleen Fenton; middle row: Brittany Merrill and Breonna Berry; bottom row: Colton Hannon and Madyson Dennis

I visited Omaha, Neb., in June 2016 to honor the school, Shawn, and 21 of his students with EPA Region 7’s Good Earth Steward Award. I witnessed how Shawn engages his students about the circle of life through science classes, hydroponics lessons, and ways to give back to the environment and their community. It was a fascinating field trip.

There is an old adage: Many hands make light the work. Shawn and his Accelere students know this firsthand and their collective work is amazing! They learn about environmental science, food production, and consistently feed their community with their harvests. A noble effort!

By Shawn Graham

Our Accelere students learn about and produce plants through the hydroponic systems they created with the help of our partners, the Nebraska Academy of Science and Nebraska Environmental Trust Plant Laboratory. It was quite remarkable that the students took over an abandoned locker room just last year to build their new hydroponics lab, and have already reaped so many benefits for themselves and Omaha neighborhoods.

Gabriela Hernandez shows off cucumber plants and fish food

Gabriela Hernandez shows off cucumber plants and fish food

The school and students produce pollinator plants and food for harvesting. Last year, we produced pollinator plants worth more than $11,000 and distributed them free to the public to help others build up pollinator habitats.

Additionally, this year we supplied Black Locust trees, Comfrey, Blazing Star, and Gallardia worth $2,221 to assist our community partner, Omaha Permaculture. Their work creates healthy ecosystems through urban agriculture-related economic development, while promoting the use of unused or unwanted vacant land to elevate the property’s utility and value for the surrounding neighborhood.

Another student project underway this year is with our community partner, Nebraska Wildlife Federation, which entails growing four different species of milkweed plants worth $1,231 to assist in rounding out the pollinator habitats across Nebraska.

One of our finest, ongoing Accelere student and community efforts is working with our partners, Open Door Mission and Sol-Nest International (SI), to grow and harvest White Nile Tilapia (WNT) fish.

Rodney Russel, Sol-Nest International, working with our White Nile Tilapia fish

Rodney Russel, Sol-Nest International, working with our White Nile Tilapia fish

Our students created the hydroponics farm over this past year. Our farm and SI are now the only licensed suppliers of WNT in the entire state of Nebraska! The students received the necessary license from the Nebraska Games and Parks Hatchery to develop WNT as a protein source for the Open Door Mission’s customers.

The Open Door Mission is a nonprofit organization that serves 2,000 meals a day to the hungry and homeless in Omaha. The students have pledged $20,000 of tilapia for the future to benefit the Mission’s culinary arts program.

One of my students, Gabriela Hernandez, explains how people have reacted to this project: “Wow, they [the students] did all that?” Gabriela worked to develop the WNT program from the ground up.

Colton Hannon and Madyson Dennis created a new technique for hydroponic vegetables. Here they show off their fish, Sassy.

Colton Hannon and Madyson Dennis created a new technique for hydroponic vegetables. Here they show off their fish, Sassy.

Students Colton Hannon and Madyson Dennis are our water quality experts, running tests to make sure all the units are running effectively. Both of them are also pioneering a new technique for growing potatoes and carrots with hydroponics.

We have 21 committed students this year, who are working, studying and producing fish and food in the Accelere Hydroponics Laboratory. I’d like to add thanks to our mentors who gave valuable help to our students. And I also want express my gratitude to our community partners. There are more than 50! Without their financial assistance, grants and guidance, none of our projects could have been completed.

“It is a lot of fun to be in Mr. Graham’s classroom,” Gabriela Hernandez said. “He listens to us and helps us learn in fun ways, while we give back to the environment.”

About the Introducer: Kathleen L. Fenton serves as the Environmental Education Program Coordinator in EPA Region 7’s Office of Public Affairs. She has worked with communities on environmental health issues, environmental education, and Healthy Schools projects for over 20 years.

About the Author: Shawn Graham is a science teacher with the Accelere Program at Omaha Public Schools in Omaha, Neb. He has been teaching 11th and 12th grade students for 13 years. Shawn’s two main goals are to generate a deeper understanding of course topics by connecting his students with the environment, and encourage students to pursue life-long learning through post-secondary education.

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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Are Mushrooms the new Styrofoam™?

By Gavin McIntyre

I started my career in advanced biomaterials after recognizing a problem that faces anyone who purchases items on the Internet, from frozen food to consumer electronics. Once you open your package, what do you do with all the bulky foam that’s not easily recycled?

Plastics and foams are ubiquitous in our everyday lives and serve a valuable role in many industries. But these materials are predominately derived from fossil fuels and most are not compostable. This creates a real problem when these materials are used in short-term applications like packaging, where their useful life lasts months at best. This is a concern for many municipalities since non-compostable synthetics continue to accumulate and fill landfills beyond their capacity.

Our goal was to develop compostable materials that are not derived from fossil fuels and do not require an exorbitant amount of energy to manufacture. In seeking to design an alternative, we took advantage of domestic waste streams that are abundant and rapidly renewable. These raw materials fit into nature’s recycling system and are beneficial to the environment once their useful lifecycle is complete.

Today our biomaterials replace the plastic foams used in the protective packaging and construction industries. Our technology uses the vegetative tissue from mushrooms, a vast network of unicellular filaments known as mycelium, as a natural adhesive to bind agricultural byproducts into a robust, foam-like material.

Our products are grown to the desired shape in just five days, and all the energy for growing the fungus comes from the agricultural waste. But most importantly these materials are safe (styrene was recently deemed a carcinogen), entirely home compostable, and comparable in cost to plastic foams.

Compostable packing for wine bottles.

A friend of mine, Eben Bayer, and I started Ecovative in 2007 right out of college to challenge this synthetic material paradigm. We needed a lot of support to get our nascent technology off the lab bench and into the market place. As two mechanical engineers, we first solicited the help of mycologist (mushroom biologist) Sue Van Hook.

We applied for an EPA Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) grant to fund our research, which was awarded in early 2009. This Phase 1 award allowed us to optimize fungal strains and agricultural wastes necessary to approach potential customers. Today we operate two manufacturing facilities in upstate New York with 70 employees.  We will be opening two additional facilities in the U.S. over the next two years with a commercial partner, adding many new jobs to the economy. Everyday we come to work we leave satisfied that the products we literally grow offer a “green” alternative for packaging.

So hopefully next time you unbox you new computer you can put the packaging in your garden rather than sending it off to a landfill.

About the Author: Gavin McIntyre was the Principle Investigator under a series of Small Business Innovative Research grants awarded by the US EPA between 2009 and 2012. McIntyre’s research focuses on the development of novel materials and processes that emulate nature using agricultural byproducts and fungal mycelium to provide low cost alternatives to synthetics such as plastics.

And for more information on how EPA supports research for innovative environmental solutions and “green” jobs, read: Investing in a Sustainable Future.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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.