Half an hour after school lets out at Dearing Elementary School, 13 students happily chow down on bowls of lettuce as an afternoon snack.
“Salad,” says 9-year-old Aviyon Johnson, “is better than I thought it was.”
It’s so good, adds 7-year-old Ava Fountain, she is making a second one to take home.
This clearly is no ordinary salad. The students grew the lettuce themselves in the southeast Las Vegas school’s hydroponic indoor garden, complete with radishes from its outdoor garden. The apple slices and tangelos were supplied by teacher Lisa Mullinix.
The students belong to Mullinix’s after-school gardening club. The gardens are grown in partnership with Green Our Planet, a Las Vegas-based nonprofit operating at about 100 local schools, said “Farmer Joe” Zitello, a master gardener who was helping the club on a recent afternoon.
The gardens serve as the basis for hands-on STEM learning — science, technology, engineering and math — both in the club and in classes using a curriculum developed by the nonprofit. Zitello and other gardener educators from the nonprofit go to each local participating school for an hour or two each week.
“It’s the best hands-on lesson that you could possibly give a child because they’re just instantly motivated to make a plan and carry it out and see things grow,” said Mullinix, a humanities teacher at the school, which is a few blocks away from Boulder Station casino.
“And besides, they get to eat the results,” she said.
Lessons include figuring out what can be planted in a certain space and a particular season, how long the plants will take to grow and why certain plants should be planted near one other, she said. The students write about what they learn in their journals, adding their own illustrations.
On this afternoon, Zitello showed the kids the best way to harvest the lettuce, while answering questions about the science behind hydroponic gardening. Afterward, John Parada, 10½, said he’s learned how the lettuce could grow without soil and using artificial light.
Bella Merly, 9, especially liked how students sell tickets to their own mini-farmer’s markets where people can come to the garden and pick their own produce to take home.
“We have our own business,” she said proudly.
Green Our Planet installed its first school garden in 2013. In 2017, it launched Nevada’s first school hydroponics STEM program. It now works with schools across the country, from Alaska to Florida, by delivering its programming online.
To learn more about the program, visit https://greenourplanet.org/.
This story was produced in partnership with the United Way of Southern Nevada as part of the “Everyone Deserves Hope” effort to assist local families this holiday season. To contribute, visit uwsn.org/hope.