Tucked into an outdoor space between two tall barbed wire fences, we enter a small wooden greenhouse. In it, strawberries, flowers, and peppers grow in beds of rocks. Soon, a group of students detained at the Department of Juvenile Justice will enter to begin a science class. They'll also harvest a part of today's lunch from an outdoor garden. It's all part of an effort to get their students outdoors more while engaging them in STEM learning.
Every Thursday, Michele Madison from Farming the Future comes in to teach STEM- Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Through gardening, she teaches everything from the nitrogen cycle, to calculating the specific surface area of rocks, to calculating the amount of food that needs to be grown to feed a certain number of students. A big part of her curriculum is a novel form of agriculture called aquaponics.
Aquaponics starts with fish providing their own "manure" for plants. The dirty water from their tank is pumped into the bed and coats rocks, where bacteria convert the ammonia in their poop into usable nitrogen. The plants use the nitrogen, and clean water is returned to the fish. It's a self contained, sustainable means of growing food.
We first met Michele last fall at Leon County's Success Academy. There, kids were picking summer crops- black eyed peas and okra- for their own garden to table dining experience. At the DJJ, they were picking the last of their winter crops- kale and turnips. The Success Academy is for students who have fallen behind, whether from classroom distractions or because of disciplinary issues. It's a curriculum designed for students who haven't succeeded in conventional schools. Like at the DJJ, much of their day is spent indoors.
At both facilities, Michele has to capture the attention of often challenging students. The challenges at the DJJ are a little different, however.
"Sometimes you'll show up, and the facility will just be on lockdown." Michele says. "Other times, especially when there's a whole new group of students... in the beginning, they don't want any part of it. They're too cool for it. Sometimes you have students when you're walking in and trying to get their attention, they'll just flip their desk over.
"But after they get to see the process and learn about it, they get really into it."
Another challenge is that the student body is in constant flux. Students can stay for as little as one day, or a maximum of 30.
"You never know if you're going to see this kid again," Michele says, "so you have to make sure that each lesson you teach, each time you come here, that you make it the best possible interaction. Because you might not get another chance to reach out to that student."
One student that she inspired at the Success Academy is Stephen Hernandez. Coincidentally, we shot an interview with him and his fellow graduating seniors for next week's Local Routes (May 11 at 8 pm ET). He has started growing mealworms like those they feed the fish, in the hopes of selling them. Michele gave him a starter batch to breed.
This spirit of entrepreneurship is also a part of Michele's message. "There’s hands on, fun, exciting learning that these kids get to take part in." Michele says. "And not only that, but they get to find out that this is a job. Most people think in order to be a scientist, you have to be in a certified lab somewhere with a PhD. Or be on the top floor of a skyscraper at a fancy engineering firm. They don’t realize that you can be a scientist and an engineer in your backyard."
"We are a nonprofit," Michele says. "We go in, and we work with what we've got. I've got a broken table saw that I use to cut wood. I don't have much, but everything I do have I put towards this."
The aquaponics systems that Farming there Future installed at the Success Academy and at the Department of Juvenile Justice were funded by grants. But even those grants don't cover all of their expenses.
"Without help from Tallahassee Nurseries and Builders FirstSource, who helps us with wood for our raised garden beds, and the Garden Center by Gator Trax, who helps provide soil, none of this would have been possible."