“Why are we building a Greenhouse?” A skeptical 8th grader asks. The purpose of this greenhouse is bigger than the plants, but rather than getting knee deep in a philosophical discussion about best educational practices with a thirteen year old, I instead reply, “It will have fish...” Based on their reaction, the student is satisfied.
Besides fish, who else will live in this house and why?
- Foods Class: The tastiest ingredients
- Mark 10:14 Program: Teach the life cycle and procedures
- 6th grade life science: Teach organ systems and ecology
- 9th grade biology: Teach cellular processes
- Greenhouse classes: Plant systems, plant chemistry, and greenhouse management
- Engineering class: System design and automation
- B&E Academy: Marketing & Sales
- STEM Research class: Experimental design
- Builders’ Club: Community Outreach
- Key Club: Community Outreach
- Greenhouse Club (all grades): Get their hands dirty
- And Fish: Live, laugh, love
An Opportunity to Fail
What makes sports, politics, business, and life both terrifying and exciting is the possibility of failure. There are plenty of moving parts to this greenhouse: the building, the systems, materials, scheduling, advertising, plants, fish, students, faculty, community, and things not even yet realized. There is great potential for failure. There is great opportunity for learning.
If you follow us on Facebook, you probably didn’t notice that we stopped updating you on our very exciting 6th grade growing project.
Fact: I am responsible for the deaths of 250+ nasturtiums.
The greenhouse construction hit a last-minute snag and these plants didn’t get the natural light they needed. In their incandescent quest for energy that didn’t exist, the stems searched, stretched, and grew too long and spindly to support the underdeveloped leaves. They cracked and died. Yet how much more classroom discussion occurred over those weeks on ‘plant responses’ in our highly visible failure than in a win in achieving a pretty flower? In the end, we sent each 6th grader home with a new seed to do it right over the summer. Here is the current summer standing of the do-over that came home with my sixth grader.
"When success begins to look like a multiple choice problem with obvious distractors, we are not fully preparing these students for the unforgiving careers that await them."
By design, a classroom can be a highly controlled learning experience. Students are handed prefabricated lab procedures with predetermined outcomes. The Teachers’ Edition and Solutions Manual make us teachers look brilliant. My students’ textbooks come pre-highlighted to make them look brilliant. The glossary will parrot half the answers. The remaining answers arrive from the phenomenon that ‘Google’ has now become a verb. Math books often have the odd numbers answered in the back. Grammar rules have been prescribed. History has already been written.
And when there is freedom of thought, there may be more than one right answer open for interpretation; and there also may be few wrong answers so that everyone can be right. “Answers may vary, accept all answers.” When success begins to look like a multiple choice problem with obvious distractors, we are not fully preparing these students for the unforgiving careers that await them. So, as professionals, we are vigilant and mitigate as best we can.
This greenhouse will help close the gap by being unforgiving to students and teachers. There is no Teachers’ Edition that came with this house. When a plant turns yellow, the fish are lethargic, the fish die in a ‘catastrophic collapse’, algae blooms, bugs arrive, the plants don’t sell, things don’t taste right, or a system doesn’t function as expected, there will be conversations that emerge, ideas exchanged, a search for information, hypotheses posed, a possible solution expressed, a procedure proposed, a setup engineered, an experiment conducted, an observation measured, results reviewed, comparisons made, a hypothesis revisited, and communication and ideas exchanged once more. The students won’t be learning the Scientific Method, they will be organically living it with no guarantees for success.
Under my confident direction, 250 plants withered and faded into the ether. We buried 25% of our trial run fish in the first month alone. Between a knocked drill and fallen clamp, we made two leaks in a vinyl liner and were able to fix one to date. Due to system back-flows and overflows, we found fish in tanks upstream where they have no earthly business being. Water pumps and timers were found unplugged and plants desiccated beyond repair. I changed the manual settings on the greenhouse fans and ended up negative-pressurizing all the doors shut. I cracked pipes and destroyed valves. When I see a drip, I’ve busted knuckles, purchased every size of channel-lock pliers and every food grade epoxy, PVC cement, underwater vinyl patch, joint compound, sealant, and As-seen-on-TV product known to man to unsuccessfully seal a leak.
I reinvented the wheel multiple times over, only to come up with a square. I’m on a first name basis with the good people of Home Depot. Our facilities crew have offered to repaint the greenhouse parking spot with a variety of unmentionable nicknames of their own for me. Thomas Edison would say that I have simply discovered 10,000 ways not to run a greenhouse. I have waded forehead deep with my colleagues into a sea of head-scratching failure and it only drives us harder. If I can see farther than other men, it is because I stand upon the shoulders of inexperience and failure. And we can only hope that our students can share in that same driving discomfort that an unanswered question provides. Yes, this greenhouse is far bigger than the plants. A greenhouse captures life in a bottle.
"There is great potential for failure. There is great opportunity for learning."
This is why we have a greenhouse at Faith Lutheran. But when all other explanations fail, remember… “We have fish…”
Mr. Stephen Blank serves at Faith Lutheran Middle School & High School as the Greenhouse Director and middle school Science teacher. He apologizes again for the Nasturtiums Disaster of 2018.
Stay tuned for a tour in a future article. Until then, follow our daily adventures as we report and photograph our fails and flourishes: