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The Power of a Plant: SUNY Potsdam's Wiser Center Cultivates Science Education With New Tower Gardens
Educator Stephen Ritz has gained international attention for transforming education and nutrition at a South Bronx school through a simple but powerful idea—teaching students to grow the food they will consume, and in turn, to teach others.
Using aeroponic indoor gardens, Ritz has built an operation that came to be known as the Green Bronx Machine at Community School 55, in which he and his students use urban agriculture to transform schools and communities.
Now, Ritz will be bringing this approach to SUNY Potsdam’s Wagner Institute for Sustainability and Ecological Research. Ritz will travel to campus on Monday, Sept. 18, along with Duane McCarthy of LDC Enterprises, to oversee the installation of five Tower Gardens in the WISER Greenhouse.
Tower Gardens are vertical aeroponic growing systems that use only water and nutrients, rather than dirt, to grow vegetables, herbs, fruits and flowers. The systems are able to grow plants indoors, in triple the speed and also produce greater yields, compared to traditional gardening, while also utilizing less water and taking up less space.
SUNY Potsdam’s new WISER Greenhouse will take advantage of this technology to enhance its hands-on learning opportunities and to add to the locally-sources produce that is used on campus by PACES Dining Services.
McCarthy and Ritz will lead an educational workshop from 9:30 to 11:50 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 18, in the WISER Center, located in Stowell Hall Room 205. They will demonstrate how to construct, plant and manage Tower Gardens to enhance learning in any classroom.
Immediately following, at noon on Monday, Ritz will present a talk, named after his autobiographical book, “The Power of a Plant: A Teacher’s Odyssey to Grow Healthy Minds and Schools.” The talk will also be offered in the WISER Center. This session is a late addition to the Biology Seminar Series.
These events are both free, and the public is invited to attend.
Faculty and staff from SUNY Potsdam and partner K-12 schools traveled to meet Ritz and see the Green Bronx Machine in action for themselves this summer, visiting the National Health and Wellness Learning Center at Community School 55 on June 26 and 27.
Joined by Amy Conger, the executive chef for Potsdam Auxiliary College and Educational Services, the group also included: WISER Coordinator Ray Bowdish, Associate Professor of Literacy and Education Marta Albert, Associate Professor of Biology Jan Trybula and teachers from two local school districts, Jennifer Hutchins from Salmon River Central School and Megan Smith from Canton Central School.
Why would a group of North Country educators travel to the Bronx to explore innovative agricultural, teaching and community-building practices? Perhaps because some of the challenges facing people in the Bronx, such as health problems related to poverty and food insecurity, opioid addiction and unemployment, are evident in North Country communities as well, Bowdish said.
“It’s interesting that despite our differing environments—they are a dense urbanized community and we are in a sparsely populated rural environment—we have many of the same issues plaguing us,” said Bowdish. “As Stephen Ritz shared during our tour, they are the poorest congressional district in the nation, located 18 blocks from the nearest public transportation. Despite ongoing challenges, members of the community work in their school gardens to help grow healthy food for themselves and their students.”
The visit to CS 55 was designed for participants to learn as much as possible about the Green Bronx Machine method of curriculum development, project-based learning and teaching, community-building and outreach through school-based farming. Seeing a highly-successful model in action will help strengthen existing connections and foster new links between SUNY Potsdam and the local community.
The information gathered by the group will help to expand a pilot project to connect middle schoolers from Salmon River Middle School with SUNY Potsdam education and biology students.
“We hope to replicate the pilot project we started in schools in the region,” said Bowdish.
The Wagner Institute for Sustainability and Ecological Research at SUNY Potsdam is working to support growing efforts in its Farm-to-School Program, by providing technical growing advice and pedagogical support for North Country schools.
The trip was funded through a grant from the Arconic Foundation (formally the Alcoa Foundation), along with support from SUNY Potsdam, PACES, the WISER Center and the Department of Biology. The grant seeks to involve and connect college and K-12 students through applied learning activities introducing novel farming practices such as vertical farming, urban agriculture, roof top gardens and rain gardens.
To learn more about the WISER Center, visit https://www.potsdam.edu/academics/AAS/biology/wiser.
SUNY Potsdam’s Department of Biology is grounded in the principle that every student should receive a quality education fitting their interests. Undergraduate research is embraced, with opportunities for hands-on learning in the fields of ecology, evolutionary biology, cell and molecular biology, environmental science, and anatomy and physiology. The department also operates the Wagner Institute for Sustainability and Ecological Research. For more information, visit https://www.potsdam.edu/academics/AAS/biology.
Founded in 1816, The State University of New York at Potsdam is one of America’s first 50 colleges—and the oldest institution within SUNY. Now in its third century, SUNY Potsdam is distinguished by a legacy of pioneering programs and educational excellence. The College currently enrolls approximately 4,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Home to the world-renowned Crane School of Music, SUNY Potsdam is known for its challenging liberal arts and sciences core, distinction in teacher training and culture of creativity. To learn more, visit www.potsdam.edu.