KHS chemistry students cultivate green thumbs

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Gardening and chemistry may not appear connected at first glance, but Kilgore High School chemistry students are learning just how the two overlap as they work in the class greenhouse.

When KHS chemistry teacher Sarah Whitfield had the idea last year to introduce the greenhouse as a year-long project for her students, she said, she did not realize she would be doing something not many other high schools were trying.

“That surprised me because there really is a lot of chemistry in gardening, so we’re pulling it together as we go,” she said.

As Whitfield has worked to create the new curriculum, she said, she learned – and continues to learn – more about how chemistry and gardening relate. She added the students have enjoyed the project also.

“It’s been fun with the kids,” she said. “Some of the students that have been kind of quiet and not very active – don’t seem to care – have really bloomed, so to speak, in the greenhouse.” Some have experience in gardening, but others are having the experience for the first time. “It’s brought out some people that I wouldn’t have anticipated. Some of the students really get into it.”

She acknowledged some students may enjoy the idea of being able to tend to a garden during class instead of engaging with the chemistry lessons incorporated in their work, but Whitfield said, both reasons are fine with her.

“That changes their attitude toward school, so that helps… They’re not asking me why are we learning this bookwork because they know there’s some direct application of why we’re going to learn it,” she said. “It doesn’t make the calculations any easier to them, but at least they see there’s a purpose in why we’re learning this.”

Sophomore Charli Marcantel enjoyed the hands-no aspect of the project because it brings a new element to the class that they could not experience if they were only in the classroom.

“You get to see how it works. Instead of looking at it on a computer screen or on a phone or whatever, you actually get to see it based right there… You get to do it by yourself,” Abbey Gaylord, one of Marcantel’s team members for a sunscreen experiment, said. She noted the students are also learning soft skills with the projects, including working with others as a team.

Angel Landaverde said the greenhouse helps him understand what they are learning in class and the purpose of the lessons.

“It’s educational at the same time as fun and we get to grow our own plants,” he said.

Dillon Johns, who returned to Kilgore High School after leaving earlier in the year for Minden, Louisiana, noted the similarities between a class he had in Louisiana and his KHS class.

“I like being able to go outside and plant; it’s interesting,” he said. “It gives you something else to do other than going inside the classroom and working. Me, growing up kind of in a country lifestyle I guess you could say, this is more of a learning experience for me than learning in the classroom. I’m more of a hands-on kind of guy. It kind of helps, it really does.”

The greenhouse allows Whitfield to teach multiple lessons that in a typical classroom are taught separately, allowing students to learn them simultaneously and see how they all relate.

As an example, Whitfield said, students were able to show their mastery of the state-required skill of determining what compounds dissolve in water by studying both water and fertilizers. The students had to find which compounds out of five – all made of different nutrients plants need – would dissolve and serve as the best fertilizer for the garden.

“Not all of them would dissolve, so they had to apply the rules for that,” Whitfield said.

The students will be taking soil samples in their flowerbeds at the school also to determine the amounts of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus in the soil. Then Whitfield will send samples to one of the local extension agencies for them to test the soil as well. The outside test will allow the students to see how close their findings were to what the extension agency found.

“How good were their lab techniques?” Whitfield said. “I suspect that it should be a close match because these kits are so easy to use, but we’ll see.”

The kits and seedlings and other items for the greenhouse were paid for by a grant awarded by the Kilgore ISD Education Foundation last year. The project was one of four grants awarded. Whitfield is also planning a plant sale for March 25 to help the project become self-sustaining.

Students will be doing a project on water catastrophes explaining the cause, the consequences and the solution.

“Science can help solve problems,” Whitfield said, “so I encourage my students to get into science. We’re trying to encourage more people into STEM because we need problem solvers.”

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