City kids: The greenhouse effect

Greenhouse education really packs a punch: experiential science learning, environmental stewardship, and the promotion of healthy lifestyle and nutrition choices. And here in Detroit, a whopping one-third of Detroit Public Schools buildings have greenhouses. 

According to Mozell Lang, director of the Office of Scientific Studies at DPS, the well-designed greenhouses have a southern exposure and are well-equipped with heaters, water systems, tools, shelves and grow lamps. Over the past few years, DPS has been reinstating some of the underutilized greenhouses with support from DTE Energy, Eastern Michigan University, Detroit Food & Fitness Collaborative, and The Greening of Detroit

Linking Science, Nutrition and Community 

Greenhouse learning is tied to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education and to building a healthier student body. Plants started in DPS greenhouses often end up being transplanted to school gardens around Detroit. 

"We want students to eat healthier and get more exercise. Gardening supports both of those goals," says Lang. "When students grow their own food, they have more of an appreciation for it and a tendency to eat more vegetables. They’re learning that good food grows out of the ground and doesn’t come in a plastic bag." 

To continue supporting those messages, on March 30 at 4 p.m., DPS will host Forks Over Knives, a film that shows the benefits of a plant-based, non-processed food diet. Lang says that the film, to be shown free of charge at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, will help parents, students, teachers and other community members begin to see all the elements, inside the schools and out, that create a healthy community. 

She says that the science curriculum and classroom instruction are just the beginning. “We are making connections between the science curriculum and health curriculum, so students can understand what’s happening with their bodies before they get into the healthcare system.” Or, better yet, to keep them out of the healthcare system. But the connections go well beyond that.

"It’s new and visionary how we are making linkages with gardening and what’s happening on our community," says Lang. She points to the connection between STEM education, healthier food in DPS schools, and Whole Foods coming to Detroit in 2013. 

Lang says Whole Foods is "preparing the way" with the future opening of its Detroit store; market representatives are already working with DPS food services to be a vegetable provider and distributor in conjunction with The Greening of Detroit. DPS has been working diligently to provide healthier school meals and now has farm-to-school programs in all 138 schools. Last year, DPS provided healthy, fresh, locally grown food for school meals for 50,000 students. 

Dusting off Existing Greenhouses

DPS originally supported the greenhouse initiative as part of an effort to have more high school students participate in the annual Science and Engineering Fair of Metro Detroit, which takes place in March at Cobo Hall. Not only do the students gain experience working on research and carrying out an investigation, but last year they also had opportunities to win prizes and money. Lang says that school fees have been paid for again this year, so DPS should have a good showing.

Last year, greenhouse revitalization focused on six high schools: King High School, Douglass Academy for Young Men, Southeastern High School, Cody College Preparatory Upper School of Teaching and Learning, Osborn Evergreen Academy, and Golightly Career and Technical Center. 

But elementary school greenhouses are also being rediscovered. At Emerson Elementary-Middle School, homeroom and science teacher Kunjan Vyas transformed one of the school’s two greenhouses from a storeroom to a working conservatory, complete with a small goldfish pond. 

She tries to relate as many science lessons as possible to the greenhouse because the children enjoy it so much. "They like to observe things, even watching the squirrels run around outside." Right now cut-out clouds are taped to the windows for a lesson about weather. Students have released butterflies in the greenhouse that they nurtured from caterpillar to chrysalis in classrooms. Composting and recycling are also connected to greenhouse activities. But the really green stuff will begin soon, with students growing saplings from seeds to transplant in the school’s outdoor garden in the spring. "The kids love it," says Vyas. "They want to put their hands in the dirt."

Creating More Learning Partnerships

Community-based programs and partnerships are fueling greenhouse activity too. Lang says that Golightly’s AgriScience Program students learn about horticulture through a partnership with the Belle Isle Conservatory. And last summer, DPS students worked with Eastern Michigan University interns to use GIS technology to identify school gardens throughout the city; determine locations of food deserts; and layout plans for school gardens. At King High School, Lang says that the principal has visions well beyond the greenhouse of creating a wilderness center where kids can see nature in an authentic setting.

"There is something inspiring about putting a seed in the ground and watching it grow. When it’s harvested, the students they know they helped it to grow," says Lang. "Encouraging students to grow their own food and get back to nature is important, economical and fun."

Melinda Clynes is a regular contributor to Model D and statewide project editor for a series of stories that address children at risk. She'll be digging from Detroit to Marquette looking for people changing that narrative.  

Photos courtesy of DTE Energy/Detroit Public Schools

Read more articles by Melinda Clynes.

Melinda Clynes is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Model D. She is the statewide project editor of Michigan Kids, a series of stories that highlight what’s working to improve outcomes for Michigan children. View her online portfolio here.
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