2017-10-19 / Front Page

AS THE WORM TURNS

TRASH BECOMES TREASURE FOR MELROSE STUDENTS
BY RYAN GIBBS


RIGHT: First-grader Maggie Reed in the Melrose School greenhouse Tuesday morning tossing carrots into the compost bin. Overseeing the project is Haley Barber, program director for the Conanicut Island Sailing Foundation. RIGHT: First-grader Maggie Reed in the Melrose School greenhouse Tuesday morning tossing carrots into the compost bin. Overseeing the project is Haley Barber, program director for the Conanicut Island Sailing Foundation. Melrose School students are sharing their food with a handful of new classmates — 2,500 of them, to be exact.

After lunch every Wednesday, the elementary students are tossing their leftover scraps into the greenhouse’s compost bin, which is now home to hundreds of red wiggler worms. From kindergarten to fourth grade, the entire student body is pitching in, literally.

The project is being administered by the Conanicut Island Sailing Foundation. Although the connection between worm composting and sailing is a stretch, developing the next generation of environmental stewards is ultimately the organization’s core mission.

“Children are spending more and more time on devices,” said Meg Myles, executive director of the sailing organization. “It feels like they are less connected to nature than ever before.”


BELOW: Secondgrader Maia Limoges with one of 2,500 red wriggler worms that will turn the children’s leftovers into fertilizer. BELOW: Secondgrader Maia Limoges with one of 2,500 red wriggler worms that will turn the children’s leftovers into fertilizer. This project is introducing students to environmental responsibility, Myles said, which ideally will become a learned behavior that extends toward the bay. The genesis came from Haley Barber, the foundation’s program director, who managed a similar workshop in California. The women pitched the idea to principal Carrie Petersen in August, who gave an enthusiastic go-ahead to extend the school’s greenhouse curriculum.

“It’s super exciting,” Petersen said. “It’s a great lesson about reducing the amount of garbage from the lunches.”

According to Barber, the benefits of using worms lies in their nutrient-rich waste, known as casting, which will be collected and saved. When the spring arrives, the casting will be used as fertilizer for the plants and vegetables that are grown in the greenhouse. The project also reduces the burden on the state landfill in Johnston, Myles said.

The students, who have been told not to intentionally waste their meals, are being taught which foods their wiggly friends can digest. Anything that is overly processed is off-limits, Barber said, which leads to a question that Barber hopes the students will begin asking themselves: “If the worms can’t process the food, why are we eating it?”

Barber also has integrated the worms into the school’s makerspace, which is a do-it-yourself classroom for students to collaboratively design and invent. For example, the students last week crafted signs that listed which foods were digestible for the worms. Apples were OK, one sign indicated, while another sign warned against cake. Like Barber, Petersen wants this lesson to translate to the students’ lunch boxes.

“This gives greater awareness to the life cycle of food,” she said. “In the long term, I’m hoping children will pay attention to what they’re eating, and maybe pack healthier lunches so they can give their leftovers to the worms.”

The diet of a red wriggler worm is a trait that separates it from an earthworm, which typically finds its nourishment in mulch and decomposing tree branches. The wrigglers also are epigeal, which means they typically are found above the soil, not inside the dirt. Wrigglers also have an aggressive obsession to food.

“All worms are decomposters, but the red wriggler worms can eat really fast,” Barber said.

The Melrose worms can process about 4 pounds of food a day. Smaller pieces of food, like a banana peel, will be composted within a couple days. A whole apple, however, will take longer.

Throughout the school year, Barber is snapping photographs to document the composting progress. Students, who observe the composting up close every Friday afternoon, are enthusiastic about “feeding the worms and meeting the worms.”

“We get to look at how fast they are composting,” Barber said.

Kindergarten teacher Jane Mitchell has a small jar of composting worms in her classroom, but the foundation’s project takes the lesson to another level.

“This is a richer and deeper experience for them to actually see the composting first hand,” she said.

Mitchell, who composts at home, is head of the school’s gardening club. She will use the fertilized soil in the spring to grow in the greenhouse.

“The worm casting is amazing for seedlings and plants,” she said. “That’s why I love them. They make my garden way better.”

In return for the free meals, the worms will lend their bodies to science. Among the complementary coursework is a kindergarten unit about the physical structure of worms and their purpose to the environment.

Barber will collect food scraps at the Melrose cafeteria through June, which is when the worms will temporarily move from the greenhouse to Fort Getty. Summer campers will care for them during the summer, Barber said, but the worms will wiggle their way back to school in September.

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