An agricultural, student-based business at Center Elementary in Plum proved fruitful in knowledge and fun.
Teacher J.R. Pilyih guided 45 fourth-graders in their farming and economic journey this school year.
Pilyih first introduced the business to the district last year as a first-grade teacher at the now-closed Regency Park Elementary. It was run by fifth- and sixth-graders.
“It’s way bigger than, ‘Here’s a plant,’” he said. “I didn’t know how fourth-graders would handle all of the different aspects: the worms, fish, the plants, towers, cutting and squeezing all that in.
“The kids really used their leadership skills to just go with it. They decided which direction we’re going to go.”
Students learned about several systems to grow crops. They grew basil with an aquaponics system, which uses water and fish waste to supply nutrients to plants instead of soil.
They made lettuce and some kale using a grow tower and its hydroponic system. It is similar to aquaponics except instead of fish it uses chemicals to enhance water for vegetation.
Students divided into teams and were responsible for different aspects of the operation. Kate Litzinger and Kira Tajc lead the vermicomposting division. It involves feeding red wiggler worms vegetable and food waste.
“It’s really fun, weird and squishy,” Kira said. “They help make new soil for growing plants.”
The soil will be used in an outdoor garden at the school.
Connor Reilly managed the grow tower. They harvested romaine lettuce and other plants. They produced about two pounds of lettuce every three weeks. They even gave some to the cafeteria.
“You put minerals in water, and the water goes all the way up and comes down,” Conner explained. “We also made rainbow chara and gave it to a teacher. You have to check the pH (acidity) every couple weeks. We need light so stuff can grow.”
Morgan Canady and Julianna Devine were among several students working with aquaponics.
“It’s really cool to (grow) plants with no soil,” Julianna said.
They named a tilapia fish “Jaws” after it ate about 40 goldfish.
Students also learned about money management, marketing and product development. They created a logo and came up with the slogan, “Worms We Use, Plants We Grow.”
They even made a commercial for their business, which sold metal water bottles and reusable bags.
Students received about 100 total orders including 25 online through their website, centergrows.com. Funds were used to offset costs and to help monetarily adopt a sea turtle from oceana.org. Fourth-grader Madi Stewart said they made three different designs printed them on the water bottles. They also packaged bottles and shipped them as far as California.
“Learning how to handle business helps with your life and if you ever want to advertise,” Madi said. “We sold a little.”
Emma Griffin helped with water bottles and creating the logo. She plans on starting a business when she gets older, and her favorite part about Center Grows was working with her best friend, Madi.
Pilyih said he learned a lot from the students the past few years by showing them how to be more environmentally friendly.
“Having a student-run business has really changed my mindset and views on education,” Pilyih said. “I have realized how important it is to connect the learning that goes on inside the classroom with the outside world.
“They loved the idea that not only can we make money, but we can use that money for things we need and give it back to the community or a charitable organization. It was great to watch different students take pride in different areas of Center Grows.”
Pilyih was assisted by fellow fourth-grade teacher Laurel Summers. The business will reopen next school year with some upgrades. Pilyih was recently awarded a $1,000 grant through the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens’ Let’s Move Pittsburgh’s Champion Schools program. Funds will be used to buy a water bottle filling station.
He’s also working on creating a makerspace to have all the growing systems in one classroom.