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The Pueblo County Extension office provides assistance and programs for citizens in five main areas: Agriculture, Horticulture, Family and Consumer Science, Natural Resources and 4-H Youth Programs.

Written by Lisa Wachtel, Colorado Master Gardener, 2018

Middle school is the perfect time for young people to become inspired about growing food and to become active members of their community. Roncalli STEM Academy’s administration and staff are collaborating with the Pueblo Food Project to transform classroom learning into a model of urban agriculture for the future. Using vertical growing chambers along with a specially designed 7th grade science curriculum, students are learning to become urban farmers with the goal of contributing to Pueblo’s food system as they launched their Food & Farming Project in January 2021.

Roncalli STEM Academy chose ten Tower Gardens to grow fresh produce in their classrooms. The Tower Gardens are vertical, hydroponic growing chambers with water pumps and lights. These compact devices are based on a design from NASA for growing plants in space without soil. While there are several types of hydroponic growing methods, the Tower Gardens are a version of aeroponics, in which a water pump circulates mist directly to the roots. The space-saving design allows students to raise about 320 plants at one time, despite the weather conditions outside. Students have assembled the Tower Gardens and have germinated a variety of seeds in containers of rockwool. After about two weeks, the seedlings are moved into the vertical gardens to mature. Crops, such as lettuce, can be harvested in about thirty days.

There are many advantages to vertical gardening in urban areas, including:

  • requiring minimal space and can be done in reclaimed lots and even shipping containers
  • using up to 90% less water than soil-based agriculture
  • avoiding the stresses of drought, wind, and hail
  • shortening growing time, and
  • increasing the nutritional value of many vegetables

Pueblo Food Project coordinator, Monique Marez, believes that lessons in the Food & Farming Project will last students a lifetime.  “Introducing our young people to these critical ideas now allows them time to think creatively about how to support our community in more sustainable and nutritious ways.  Our goal is for young learners to connect with their head, hands, and hearts to recognize that the choices we make have an impact.  Eventually we would like to take this curriculum open source and share it nationwide so other learning communities can benefit from the pioneering work done at Roncalli.”

Principal Michael Cservenak and STEM coach Rebecca Reinking-Herd are supporting their staff to develop cross-curricular connections around issues of food and empowering students to make real life decisions.  Ms. Katriina Ketola and the 7th grade science team are inviting local experts into their classroom to deepen students’ understanding about the science involved in our food systems and potential STEM careers.

Dr. Lisa Wachtel, Colorado Master Gardener in Pueblo, is collaborating with the Pueblo Food Project and the Roncalli staff to design a curricular framework that will meaningfully connect the 7th grade life science curriculum to the Food & Farming Project and the Next Generation Science Standards. Using local resources and Pueblo’s diverse agricultural heritage, lessons focus on fostering sustainability and environmental stewardship. These experiences will hopefully open doors for students to contribute their produce to the Pueblo community and to develop a life-long interest in the incredible food system that sustains us all.

two brunette young men wearing black shirt khaki pants and disposable facemask standing next to white PVC tower garden

Roncalli STEM Academy 7th grade students assembling the Tower Gardens.

eight trays of plant seedlings

Seedlings sprouting in rockwool before being placed in the Tower Gardens.