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Growing good kids
HMS greenhouse project ignites interest in science
new vlc greenhouse
Hoisington Middle School students are shown working in a greenhouse started by teacher Karissa Cowan. - photo by Veronica Coons/Great Bend Tribune

Hoisington teachers help kids connect with nature

Sometimes momentum behind an idea builds, and suddenly, the idea becomes a trend. In 2018, it appears growing and connecting with nature is trending in Hoisington. Three Hoisington teachers are leading that trend, both in and out of the classroom, and kids in Hoisington are benefitting. This is the first of three stories that will focus on each of these teachers and how they are contributing to the trend.
Today, we visit with Hoisington Middle School teacher Karissa Cowan, who dreamed big and followed through on her quest to bring a state-of-the-art hydroponics program to her students, and in the process opened their eyes and hearts to the wonders of science in a way they’ve never experienced before.

HOISINGTON — Beginning in the 2016-2017 school year, Hoisington Middle School science and language arts teacher Karissa Cowan began raising funds for a unique project following her participation in a space agriculture seminar over a four-week period the summer before at the Cosmosphere at Hutchinson. There, she learned about hydroponics and dreamed about how she could take back what she learned and incorporate it into her class curriculum.
Cowan first approached her principal, Pat Reinhardt, and USD 431 Superintendent Bill Lowry. They were intrigued, and encouraged her to present her idea to the school board. They gave her the nod to begin her fundraising campaign, which included concession stand work, and selling items made with the school’s 3D printer, socks and packaged juice drinks. These dollars, plus grants she won from the Sierra Club, Pets in the Classroom, the Cosmosphere, High Plains Farm Credit, Kansas Farm Bureau, the Wolf Creek nuclear facility and donations from local patrons including Garrett Tindall, Wayne and Mary Ann Stoskopf and the Kephart family put her over the top with $10,000.
She involved her students in the fundraising process, and when the money was raised she included them in choosing a greenhouse kit and hydroponics kit to use in the classroom. They also considered as a class where to position the greenhouse, and factors like weatherproofing and ventilation.

“The kids helped rework a plan for the measurements for the greenhouse. They researched and learned how to put it together, figuring out ways to make it better,” Cowan said. “We had a wind resistance problem which the kids also helped to solve.”
The school board approved a request to install a door in an exterior wall of the school building, and Cowan’s family members pitched in and assembled the kit over a weekend. Hammeke Electric, a local electrician, also installed all the lighting.
During the 2017-2018 school year, Cowan taught 109 seventh- and eighth-grade students. She teaches seventh-grade language arts and eighth-grade science, plus an elective STEM class with a combination of both grades. In 2018-2019, she will also teach sixth graders. Her style of teaching is very student-led, she said. Seventh-grade students study from science texts, which front loads them for the science in eighth grade. This also allows Cowan to dedicate more time for conducting science experiments because students are already familiarized with the science from earlier reading, she said. She also collaborates closely with the math teachers.
The way the classes flow from one grade to the next allows Cowan to build beneficial relationships with the students over a few years. Her classes usually include about 15 minutes of talk, with the remainder of class time devoted to hands-on doing, she said. And, with the schools’ one-to-one chromebook supply, they are equipped to move quickly through reading and experimenting.
Students even created programs to print hydroponics units with the school’s 3D printer, to see how inexpensively it could be done, factoring in the cost of materials and the cost of labor.

Hydroponics offers a wide array of possibilities in the classroom, Cowan said. Students quickly learned and began following the scientific method and suggesting experiments to try. They conducted growing time experiments, studied root patterns, and explored the effects from ph levels.
“Whatever the kids wanted, they followed the scientific method, and we did it,” she said. They began with aquaponics, and later moved to starting seeds in soil and other seed starting media.
“It’s even changed my whole classroom dynamics,” she said. “The kids want to come, and they want to check on it each day.”
Students grew tomatoes, spinach and peppers in the hydroponics units in the greenhouse. When the plants began producing, they looked up recipes to try with the produce.
Word got out about what Cowan was accomplishing. A local retired science teacher, Terry Nech, saw the greenhouse and met with Cowan, and they have become friends, she said.
Nech and friends have purchased vacant lots in an area just south of Hoisington where they installed a small kids fishing pond and are working on the creation of a nature trail. He asked if the class would start some butterfly milkweed seeds for him.

In years to come, Cowan hopes to expand on that opportunity and introduce composting, aquaponics and airoponics to the program.
They could also go in other directions, including rocks and minerals, experimenting with environmental conditions, testing soils and water, wherever the scientific method will take them, she said.