June 26 • 03:08 PM

Spicing things up

Orchard Primary garden is hands-on STEAM experience

Orchard Primary students are all eyes during their recent outdoor learning experience which utilized plants and vegetables they planted and harvested themselves from the elementary school's own garden.

October 03, 2018
ALMONT — Staff at Orchard Primary School prides itself on offering students in grades K-4 unique early educational opportunities.

Listed among those opportunities is the school's outdoor learning classroom and garden, where students learn how to plant, care for and harvest their very own plants and vegetables.

Recently, OP students participated in a hands-on project that was both educationally stimulating and nutritionally satisfying.

Orchard Primary Principal Jen Szlachta explained that students harvested the vegetables they planted in the spring, which became ingredients in their very own batch of salsa sauce.

"In our Orchard Primary garden, the students learn about the basics of gardening, recycling, sustainability, food sources, how to prepare healthy foods, healthy living and so on," said Szlachta. "All students continued to participate by using the items they grow in the garden themselves to make the salsa."

Szlachta said the elementary school's STEAM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Arts/Math) teacher, Ritchie Feys, is among those who are helping to spearhead and inspire students' appreciation for the outdoor learning environment.

"Students at the Orchard Primary have a unique opportunity to learn in ways that many other area students do not," said Feys. "My 500 or so primary students get a learning field trip on a weekly basis.

"Almont has dedicated a portion of our school property next to the old apple orchard to reinforce the education students receive inside the walls and apply it to the outdoors," Feys continued. "The garden project allows us to reap the benefits that Mother Nature provides."

He explained that each spring for the past four years, students have helped prepare the garden soil for planting, with assistance from Karen Brohl of Almont-based Brohl's Greenhouse.

"She (Brohl) generously donates the majority of our plants," he said, "and our students are always amazed when they come back from summer vacation to see the progress of the plants that have grown during the summer months."

Feys noted that students are also responsible for helping to keep the garden free of weeds and animal intrusion.

"The upkeep is a huge task to keep the weeds and animals under control, but each stage of the process is a learning experience for the kids," said Feys. "Harvesting is definitely the highlight for the children."

He pointed out that two years ago, the school donated more than 400 pounds of produce to the Almont community.

"So far this year, we have given 172 beef steak tomatoes, 152 roma tomatoes, 57 jalapeno peppers, and 22 bell peppers to our community," Feys said. "The learning opportunities are abundant and all 20 of my classes enjoy a culminating salsa-making feast."


'secret' salsa

Feys said that by using vegetables from the school's garden, students have managed to create a "secret" salsa recipe for all to enjoy as part of an all-natural organic and "yummy feast."

"All in all, I believe the Orchard Primary students have the most unique learning opportunity in the immediate area," Feys opined. "By combining the students indoor learning experience and connecting it with the outdoor learning experience, we help create a truly well-rounded education for the kids.

"I feel that nature teaches children in many different ways and reinforces the learning that takes place inside the school," Feys said. "Giving back and donating produce to our community is a powerful lesson in itself and allows our students to experience this side of education, which is pretty cool. I am honored to be their outdoor education and STEAM teacher."

Picking up STEAM

Almont's Orchard Primary is among a growing number of elementary schools offering a basic introduction to STEAM education.

Unlike STEM programming, whose focus is on science, technology, engineering and math, STEAM offers the inclusion of the letter "A" for the arts.

The "A" component applies to the liberal arts, fine arts, music, design, creativity, communication and language arts, all of which many educational experts consider integral to a well-rounded education.

There is an added potential benefit that incorporating arts into traditional STEM programming attracts students who otherwise may not be interested in taking science, math and engineering classes.

Tom Wearing started at the Tri-City Times in 1989, covering the Village of Capac as a beat reporter. He later served stints as assistant editor and editor. Today, he covers Imlay City and Almont as a staff writer. He enjoys music and plays drums and sings with various musical groups in the Detroit Metropolitan area.
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