How Does Your Garden Grow? Beyond School Bells and Partners Reveal their New Afterschool High-Tech Tool  

When you step into The Bay, the first thing you inhale is the scent of fresh basil. The air is abuzz with excitement as UNL Honors students pull greens from a leafy curtain. 

Today, Nebraska Children and Families Foundation’s afterschool initiative, Beyond School Bells, and many hardworking partners aren’t just growing greens. That is to say, the Greenery is not your typical afterschool program.  

UNL Honors, The Bay, Lincoln Public Schools’ Independence Academy, and many others are changing the face of afterschool. 

The new face of afterschool is represented by a high-tech growing container. Despite the container’s compact size, it fits a 2-acre farm. While utilizing 99 percent less water than a traditional farm.  

Meanwhile, UNL Honors students have been overseeing the entire operation.  

As they open the door, purple light illuminates walls of kale, lettuce, cabbage, and basil. Today is the first harvest for this entirely youth and young adult-driven program, and as exhibited by the rows of fresh greens, everyone is excited. 

Some of the new faces of afterschool learning include UNL students Alexus Hansen, Keith Tran, and Colton Harper, and Beyond School Bells Program Coordinator, Dakota Staggs.  

Together with Beyond School Bells and partners, the group is utilizing Freight Farms’ the Greenery, a hydroponic, compact growing container to appeal to their majors, stretch their comfort zones, engage the community, and create sustainability.  

But even that’s not all that afterschool does. Contrary to an occasional misconception, expanded learning programs (ELOs) are more than just babysitting and more than simply a place for kids to go outside of regular school hours.  

Beyond School Bells works every day to create quality expanded learning opportunities (ELOs) throughout Nebraska, not only for K-12 students but as the Greenery shows, for college-age students of all backgrounds. In addition, the Greenery includes students from Lincoln Public Schools’ Independence Academy, with a curriculum geared toward giving students with disabilities the opportunity to engage in business, life, and social learning experiences.  

Generously gifted to Beyond School Bells by the Ben Hormel Harris Foundation, children and youth of all ages are reaping what they sow from the Greenery. Benefits of this initiative and many other high-quality expanded learning experiences include students exercising start-up collaboration skills, sustainable farming, and problem-solving.  

And this is only the beginning. 

It makes sense that Nebraska Children’s initiative, Beyond School Bells (BSB), which focuses on creating, improving, and sustaining high-quality summer and afterschool programs throughout Nebraska, would be one of the key stakeholders in the project.  

When Nebraska Children says that we grow the good life and drive toward a world where everyone thrives, we aren’t speaking only to children. We’re also referring to youth, young adults, and adults of every age. 

Today, we spoke with UNL Honors students who have tended to their farm. These young people told us about how, like any quality expanded learning program, they’ve learned different skills and collaboration experiences for the real world. 

“It’s good to think about world problems, but we need to impact the local community,” said Keith Tran.  

A UNL senior majoring in Computer Science, Keith said he feels strongly about involving the local community with these growing efforts. 

“[The Greenery] has blossomed into impacting kindergarteners, middle schoolers, and UNL students,” he said. “It’s a process.”   

Alexus Hansen, a UNL senior, is working toward her major in Biological Science and minoring in Environmental Science. She participates in the UNL Honors Experiential track that provides third-and fourth-year students with internship opportunities such as the Greenery to motivate and excite them.  

For Alexus, this first harvest isn’t solely about success; her passions stem from much more. 

Alexus said, “I love plants and volunteering in the community; this opportunity connected those things.”  

Best of all, as a passionate advocate for sustainability, Alexus said that she’s proud of how efficient the Greenery is. 

“The Greenery uses 99 percent less water than traditional agriculture,” she said of the compact growing container.  

“Our goal is little to no waste,” she said. 

Dakota Staggs, Beyond School Bells Program Coordinator, added that this first harvest has led to many other collaborations among quality expanded programs. 

“We have an opportunity to engage with Freight Farms [the Greenery] and other experts,” he said. “It’s exciting to apply what we’re doing here to other afterschool projects.”  

An environmental advocate himself, Dakota said that he has other plans for sustainable agriculture learning. One of the upcoming high-tech agriculture initiatives includes introducing a Farmbot and aeroponics tower into afterschool programs. 

Dakota said that the Farmbot is a robotic gardening system that uses specially designed tools and programming to plant, water, and monitor the garden. Some afterschool programs, luckily, are already implementing the Farmbot into their expanded learning opportunities.   

“Kids can apply knowledge of growing plants to different forms of agriculture,” said Dakota. “We hope that many students will work on the land in new and innovative ways.”  

Dakota said that these activities are multi-dimensional in their benefits for students.  

“Gardening is such a key to engaging students in environmental education, so by providing opportunities to see new and innovative methods of growing food like the Greenery or a garden robot (FarmBot), we hope to inspire students to engage their own innovativeness in their gardens in school and at home”.  

Meanwhile, Alexus said that she feels fortunate to work across her favorite disciplines, in addition to feeling excited about all the attention the first harvest is receiving. 

“I still feel lucky, and I get paid for it. Like, everyone in there is taking pictures!” she said, gesturing toward the growing crowd admiring the greens. “This is serious!”  

“I love the collaboration of fields,” said Alexus.  

In addition to the Greenery appealing to her areas of passion, Alexus said she appreciates the way the project involves all ages. “We’re combining [Lincoln Public Schools] and the UNL Honors Program; it’s a great project,” she said. 

But Keith and Alexus said a community-involved project doesn’t equate with being an easy one. 

As you can imagine, the seemingly effortless display of greens in the growing container and in The Bay did not grow overnight. 

“It’s been a big experiment,” said Alexis. “Chemistry is involved; [this project] dips into everything.”   

For Keith, growing with the Greenery appealed to his entrepreneurial side, among many others. 

“This is a community-involved project; it feels like a start-up; we need to build the system. We don’t know the potential problems; it’s amazing! I’ve learned about environmental science,” he said.  

Keith, who works closely with UNL student, Colton Harper, who is taking his PhD in Computer Science at UNL, who spearheaded the Greenery effort, felt compelled to participate. 

“He mentioned the project; I said ‘Yeah, that sounds cool!’ Most people [in my field] do software engineering,” said Keith regarding the traditional internship route.  

Keith said that he’s happy to think and grow out of the box. 

“[The Greenery is] still systems-work,” he said. “It’s computer-thinking, but in a different way. Computer science says it’s not the technology you use; it’s the way you approach problem-solving.”  

Keith said he implements his analytical skills anytime he needs to troubleshoot the Greenery, for example, when he encounters a technical difficulty or an issue with the sensor, he finds himself having to diagnose the issue.  

“I have to understand how these problems happened, then to pinpoint them,” he said. 

Keith is a good example of why expanded learning programs are essential to not only K-12 students, but college students as well. These learning experiences afford students the chance to develop skills that are relevant to their areas of study, expand their breadth of talents, and provide career-building opportunities that aren’t available during the traditional school day.  

Even though today marks the team’s first harvest, these UNL students and partners are already reaping the benefits.  

“The first plan is to give them all away,” said Alexus regarding the initial batch of greens. “We’ll also sell the produce at local Farmers’ Markets.”   

Alexus said that the team and The Bay are wanting to collaborate with local food truck vendors and Lincoln Public Schools, especially during the winter to supply them with organic greens.  

She said that these freshly cultivated greens are a healthy option during the winter months when locally-grown vegetables aren’t available. 

Jeff Cole, Beyond School Bells Network lead said depending on the type of green, that we may enjoy several harvests every year.  

“In this case, it depends on what is grown. I’m hoping we will be able to schedule plants to have smaller harvests weekly,” said Jeff.  

Dakota said that one of the project’s wins included the spectrum of students involved, as the Greenery provides learning experiences for all ages.  

“Kindergarten students can see a unique example of agriculture; for middle schoolers, they receive more in-depth exposure, and high school students develop Capstone projects,” said Dakota. 

“The most exciting thing is tapping into the knowledge and creativity of UNL students and their unexpected convergence of backgrounds, which produced a unique program.”  

Dakota said that he’s inspired to see how engaged the students are. 

“The spectrum of students the Greenery engages is amazing,” he said. “From kindergarteners learning about leaves, to Independence Academy students learning about harvesting and preparing food, there are opportunities for students of all ages, abilities, and interests and it has been awesome to watch the excitement and learning of everyone involved.” 

Dakota added that this first harvest will lead to many other exciting, educational, and career-building opportunities for all students.  

“We’ll continue to engage a diverse range of students including [Lincoln Public Schools’] Independence Academy and UNL students,” he said.  

 “There are so many ways to engage all students,” said Dakota. 

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Nebraska Children and Families Foundation supports children, young adults and families at risk with the overall goal of giving our state's most vulnerable kids what they need to reach their full potential. We do this by building strong communities that support families so their children can grow up to be thriving, productive adults.

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