Compost Laboratory Education Project

Final Report for LNE96-071

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1996: $51,650.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2000
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $2,700.00
Region: Northeast
State: Maine
Project Leader:
William Brinton
Woods End Agricultural Institute
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Project Information


The Woods End Compost Laboratory Education project objective is the development of a set of compost learning steps applicable to classrooms or public courses (e.g. Master Composter courses, Compost School Classes, etc.) as well as ultimately to general learner audiences. The proposed learning steps comprised investigations of both the process and end-product of composting.

According to the original project concept, “lab” procedures were designed to be implemented within specific classroom programs, and subdivided into simple, mid-level and advanced categories. The initial idea was to enable teachers to adapt lessons to lower middle and upper school curricula. However, in the final review and trial period we recognized a broader need to implement a learning/investigation process that was not prescribed for levels of a classroom per se, rather oriented to the “learner” with an active interest in composting.

Teachers themselves are learners and each has a situation requiring adaptation and manipulation of recommended procedures to fit the students and the budget. Indeed teachers who participated and reviewed the work raised concerns about making it too “specific”, requiring greater rather than lesser effort on their part to incorporate into a classroom situation.

The final outcome of the project is a printed draft manual containing a series of investigation methods that take one through a process of understanding compost source materials, composting as a process and compost the end-product.

Project Objectives:

The Compost Laboratory Education project was conceived as an effort to involve young students in meaningful classroom activities that utilize the structure of scientific experiment to examine and evaluate the composting process.

The contract team involved free-lance educators and a research and testing laboratory specialized in compost analysis. Members of the lab team were also involved in outreach and on-going teaching through University of Maine’s Compost School and though local school which have established cafeteria composting programs managed by young students.

The challenge of this team was to establish a set of procedures from among many known lab techniques that would fit within the structure of learning environments but not necessarily classrooms in the classical sense of elementary/high schools. We arrived at this new orientation for the program through advise and interaction with teaching and master compost course programs that do not have the strict structure of the teacher/classroom.
A principal focus of selecting laboratory procedures was to evaluate compost input materials and their bio-degradation during composting. A variety of general to specialized techniques were to be evaluated including heat-energy, microbial respiration, microbial plate counts and plant-growth tests to reveal end-product quality.


Research results and discussion:

Workshops/Classes: Activities developed as part of the Compost Laboratory Education Project were piloted at the Conway Grammar School, Conway, MA and Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, Northampton, MA during May and June, 1997. Additionally, we piloted our Compost Laboratory manual with teachers at a teacher instructional seminar under the Franklin County Inservice Day program on October 29, 1997 in Turners Fall, Massachusetts. Later we tested the procedures in Maine Schools at the Cape Cod Hill elementary school compost program and the Alive-and-Well children gardening program (Mt Vernon). Additionally, we implemented test methods for the adult-learning environment within the University of Maine Compost School, a curricula-based program that occurs 4 times per year and which we trialed the program over 2 years. These various programs help teachers, master composters and operators develop and understand environmental processes and in our case enabled us to test many of the concepts in actual learning situations.

The school pilots involved a total of forty-three students and three teachers, twenty-three fifth grader students at Conway Grammar School and twenty ninth and tenth graders in the Agricultural Department at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School. The Inservice teacher training pilot involved 13 certified teachers all who signed up in advance for the sessions. Two staff of the Woods End project team were presenters in this program. The Cape Cod Hill program involved grades 4-6 with pupils, teachers and maintenance crew helping design a monitoring method for on-property composting bins. It subsequently included staff and parents who became responsible for on-going maintenance and summer events without student participation. It was found important the proposed “classroom manual” now include the broadened “learner” environment which dynamic projects involving composting naturally are attuned to. A simultaneous collaborative grant from Maine Dept. of Education paid a school in Maine to build compost bins to be a learning center, and a Pennsylvania DER grant paid to implement a similar learning program designed by Woods End at a private day-school.

Specific Activities: We adapted many well known compost lab procedures and attempted to work them into a form that would be generally applicable to a wide range of learners who do not have specialized laboratory setups (but have some access to them). The following is a listing of the key lab procedures we piloted and reviewed.

— Self-heating of Compost: The use of simple passive bench-scale vessels that enable any investigator to demonstrate the heating potential of compost. The main limitations of the procedure proved to be that extreme insulation is required on small vessels in order to hold heat in a manner that is comparable to actual compost piles.

— Microbial evolution of CO2: The application of a variety of simple to complex chemical tests to demonstrate evolution of carbon dioxide from decomposing materials. Several simple methods were discarded based on being to imprecise, while it was felt that lab quantitative methods were too involved to enable easy set-up.

— Bean seed simulation of bacteria counting. It was found that many persons have difficulty grasping what constitute microbial quantities. Furthermore, the probability of discovery which is implicit in the most-probable-number (MPN) approach to counting bacteria, and also the serial dilution approach, introduce statistical uncertainty–particular relevant when counting pathogens—-that need to be grasped by the learner. Thus, we evolved a challenging technique of using various colored beans mixed in pre-determined ratios to find out what dilution counting and probability are.

— Microbial Identification: (bacteria/fungi) plate counts and microbial observation: After considerable experimentation it was felt quantitative counting of microbes may impose too many requirements on a learner or teacher to be worth the effort.

— Plant Growth Bioassay: Several methods that have been used to demonstrate positive/negative effects of compost in simple growth setups were evaluated. The need to have long-term setups in the classroom were considered in relation to the value obtained- i.e. the quickest plant test requires one-week of care.

— Compost physical quality- simple methods to show cleanliness (and contamination) of compost products were reviewed. These were found to be extremely meaningful by all reviewers. The concept of performing “waste audits” and classifying the degradable fractions and then evaluating what “inerts” and contaminants remained in composts were very important lessons. These types of lessons were also easily managed at all levels of learners/ teachers.

Participation Summary


Educational approach:

The current Guideline to Compost Learning document exists in draft form only. While it is not publicly available at this time, it is being actively reviewed by two publishing houses who are providing important insights into approach and content to make the lessons and techniques truly applicable. Persons may inquire of Wood End Agricultural Institute( at 207.293.2453 or by writing to: W.E.A.I., Inc., 1850 Rome Road. Mt Vernon ME 04352.

Project Outcomes

Impacts of Results/Outcomes

A final outcome of the program will be a classroom laboratory manual providing structured student activities to investigate the process and product of composting. Because of large interest among other national education programs, the project has been extended to include producing a finished manual instead of a project report.
The manual will outline a broad range of activities that support compost education in the framework of practical and experimental programs.

Economic Analysis

This study did not involve any direct economic evaluation. However, specifically, in some of the pilot trials, we reviewed the impact on potential schools of a curricula based on composting. Very large budgetary constraints were evident. This suggested that selecting “lab” techniques for study that product the highest impact (in terms of meaningful content) at the least cost for set-up and materials would be likely to be the most accepted. Subsequent review of the proposed Guideline document strongly suggested that perceived financial requirements would have a large impact of success or adaptability of the program. Unfortunately, the original planners of the program did not include this form of feedback in the initial process, so it was late in the project that the team was urged to re-direct resources to simpler methodologies.

Areas needing additional study

The general outcome of the project was as much a learning experience for the project leaders as for the target learner/teacher audience. The project made clear that any effort to design techniques that are instructive and cost-effective in a non-specialized environment such as a school or an adult-education program, must concern itself primarily with meaningful impact relative to complexity. The early planners of this project focused on the idealism of teaching “compost” and targeted the most likely devoted audience. The team that finally completed the project learned that a variety of very, very basic questions about compost and biodegradation must be addressed and the economics of proposed learning methodologies evaluated early in the program.

Very strong positive outcome was experienced with persons who had a real interest in compost but lacked technical knowledge. Furthermore, the project attracted the attention of two publishing houses who were interested to prepare a guideline for a wide audience. Surprising to the team was how little is known about the basic biology of degradation, composting and waste composition. Busy Americans have very little time to think about these things, but are very interested in learning more! Thus, a very productive focus for future projects like this would be to adapt a variety of highly meaningful lessons to a very broad audience instead of very specific methods for a highly devoted audience.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.