SPRING HILL — Linda Rothenberg's students have turned more than $5,000 in grants into an outdoor classroom that is growing vegetables.
As Westside Elementary School's science lab teacher, Rothenberg sees more than 700 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, and all have participated in the project.
The outdoor classroom, funded by a $4,700 Lowe's grant, was constructed mostly by fifth-graders and some fourth-graders.
Jay Engle, a substitute teacher at Westside who volunteered to help direct the bricklaying for the classroom floor, fifth-grade teacher Scott Urban, Lowe's commercial sales representative Dolores Arcuri and fourth-grade teacher Dave Smith supervised students who installed the bricks.
The students' work is not done, though.
Rothenberg has tables, umbrellas, chairs, a covered shelter, plastics tubs and a shed from Lowe's. The fifth-graders are responsible for packing away the chairs in the shed to prevent theft each afternoon and bringing them back out in the mornings. They are training fourth-graders so they will be ready to take over next year.
The plastic tubs were supposed to be used for plants, but that had to be put off until next year.
The gardens were thrown off schedule because of the late cold spells, Rothenberg said.
In the meantime, she has been using the plastic tubs for water, sand and archaeological stations. These are places she can teach about weights and balances, measuring and identification of bones and shells.
A $1,633 grant from Southwest Florida Water Management District provided equipment to grow hydroponic and in-ground vegetables: seeds, fertilizer and three hydroponic units.
The units resemble big, white buckets with a pocketed cover. The plants live in cups, filled with clay pellets, that allow the roots to grow down into the container through holes. There the roots are sprayed with water and nutrients.
Rothenberg hopes the hydroponic units will produce something to harvest before the school year ends. There are tomatoes, bell peppers and jalapenos growing in the units.
A couple of classes are growing other vegetables. One added green beans. Another is growing corn.
The children have been tracking water use and comparing the hydroponic and in-ground systems. Rothenberg said there was significantly less water used for the hydroponics, after an initial surge to fill the containers. The hydroponic plants were much bigger than the in-ground ones.
"This is real life," Rothenberg said. "This is cutting-edge technology, and our students at Westside are getting it firsthand. Our world will be a hydroponic world very soon."
She hopes students learn water conservation, preservation and about people's effect on the environment.
Although the outdoor classroom has been used since Earth Day on April 22, there will be an official grand opening at 11 a.m. today.