‘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 views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

It’s a Lawn Mower! It’s a Weed Whacker! No…it’s a Herd of Goats!

By Sara Ernst

EPA’s research facility in Narragansett, Rhode Island recently enlisted the help of a highly skilled landscaping team to create more pollinator-friendly habitat on the premises.  The team doesn’t use chemicals or pollute the air with carbon emissions, can work on just about any terrain or slope, and loves to eat poison ivy.  So, who is this slightly peculiar dream team? A herd of goats from Laurel Hill MicroFarm in Hope, Rhode Island!

Before the goats and their herders arrived, the facility had a maze of invasive plants plaguing the perimeter of the property, however, over the course of 10 days, these impressive eaters were able to safely consume all the poison ivy and invasive vegetation in the area.

My family always says I have a hole in my foot because of how much I can eat, but let me tell you, I’ve got nothing on these goats!  One goat can eat about 100 square feet of vegetation a day, varying with density – and we were working with a team of 16!  The goats were constantly frolicking back and forth between various plants, small trees, and shrubs, eating to their hearts content and only stopping when they needed short digestion breaks.  When a designated area was cleared, they’d look at their herder as if to say, “Okay what’s next? We’re hungry!”

a herd of goats take on a big plant

goats hard at work eating plantsa white goat reaches up to take a bite out of a leaf

 

Habitat loss is one of the main reasons pollinators such as bees, birds, and butterflies have declined in abundance over the past few decades.  By removing overgrown landscaping and nuisance plant species from our property, the goats are protecting native plants that serve as pollinator habitat from invasive vegetation that could have easily disturbed their growth and threatened their survival.  Space has also been created so new pollinator-friendly vegetation has room to grow, and areas have been left free of plant life to provide habitat for ground-nesting pollinators like bumble bees.

Taking steps to protect and increase habitat for pollinators helps to mitigate their decline and strengthen their numbers.  These efforts are essential in protecting the health of the environment and in ensuring the sustainability of our food production systems, as well as their continued economic contribution to the agriculture industry.  EPA is committed to helping restore pollinator populations to healthy levels, consistent with the June 2014 Presidential Memorandum “Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators”.

This is the first time EPA has used conservation grazing or “goatscaping”, and I doubt it will be the last.  Goats are efficient workers, environmentally-friendly, and able to work safely and easily in areas that may be dangerous or difficult for humans and heavy equipment.  Best of all, by using goats to clear overgrown landscaping, especially invasive plant life, we are helping pollinators prosper.  Visit EPA’s pollinator protection page to learn more about pollinator health, what EPA is doing, and how you can help!

About the Author:  Sara Ernst is an Oak Ridge Associated Universities contractor and works as the Science Communications Specialist in the Atlantic Ecology Division of EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.