Integrating High Tunnel Vermicomposting in a High School Science Curriculum

Final Report for YENC14-077

Project Type: Youth Educator
Funds awarded in 2014: $2,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Manager:
Mark Quee
Scattergood Friends School
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Project Information



Background: Scattergood Friends School operates an organic farm to raise food for our community. We certify 10 acres for organic fruit and vegetable production. On these acres we use extensive cover cropping to help control soil erosion, improve soil quality, manage nutrients, and help control weeds. We maintain a diverse landscape including a variety of crops, forages and trees to encourage beneficial insects and healthy ecosystems. Soon we will plant prairie strips throughout our gardens to further encourage beneficial insects and increase our plant diversity. We also use rotational grazing on our 40 acres of pasture to manage our small herds of sheep and cattle, as well as our turkeys and Guinea hogs.


We sought to increase the capacity of our vermicomposting system (specifically to find ways to keep the worms alive and active during the winter months) and find ways to get our students directly involved in studying the effects of vermicompost in our cropping systems.



Many of our ideas came from the work of John Biernbaum at Michigan State University and Elaine Ingham with the Soil Foodweb. First we learned as much as possible about what they are doing and how they are doing it.


Mike Severino, our Life Sciences teacher took “Cultivating the Soil Food Web,” a microscopy training course offered at Maharishi Institute in Fairfield, Iowa, where he received hands-on training in the methods that Ingham uses to identify lifeforms in the soil.


We ordered four 40x-400x Student Compound M200-E Microscopes with Digital Cameras for use in our classrooms.


In our Agriculture Research class, one student began experimenting with different combinations of materials to make the most productive composting worm milieu. She tried various combinations of kitchen waste, livestock bedding and manure, soil, and paper products, ultimately determining that a 1:1 ratio of paper products to aged livestock bedding was the best medium for our system.


This student also spent much time doing microscopy on the finished compost products and cataloging the lifeforms contained within. She also collected leachate from the finished products and used it as a plant food in an experimental lettuce trial. Results were inconclusive but seemed to indicate that too much leachate was harmful, while a little was possibly beneficial. Additional studies need to be performed, though, perhaps diluting the leachate or making a compost tea from it.


We began digging a pit to house our red wiggler composting worms in the winter. Unfortunately, we chose a low corner of our high tunnel which flooded frequently and caused much consternation. When we finally began work on another corner, our progress went much faster. We dug the pit approximately 4 feet deep by 5 feet wide and 10 feet long. We had initially imagined several smaller pits, but given the flood prone nature of our high tunnel, we went with one large one. We also ended up digging it larger than planned to accommodate the lost space for the cinder block walls.


When the pit was dug, we lined the entire thing with landscape fabric to prevent the worms from disappearing into the soil around the pit. We used large landscape staples to hold the fabric in place and then used cinder blocks to build a retaining wall within the pit. We debated lining the interior of the cinder blocks with landscape fabric as well, but decided against this assuming that the layer on the outside as well as the inviting medium would help keep most of the worms in place.


After the pit was completed and with winter approaching, we layered shredded paper, aged livestock bedding and used paper towels, napkins and egg flats and then introduced some finished vermicompost that contained many worms. We watered everything thoroughly to give the worms a moist environment with abundant food sources.


We will monitor the well-being of the worms through the winter and will be prepared to offer them additional insulation by placing blue board on top of the pit and additional warmth with either a brooding lamp or small heating wand in a 5 gallon bucket of water.


While we were busy finishing the worm pit, we also began construction on 7 raised beds on the south side of our high tunnel. Each bed is approximately 4 feet by 8 feet and was built with 2”x4”x8’ cedar boards in order to provide some longevity and meet our organic certification requirements.


When students returned in the fall, we filled each of the raised beds with a different amount of worm compost with the goal of seeing how little is required in order to realize the benefits from the vermicompost. The beds were filled with 0% (our control bed), 5%, 10%, 15%, 20%, and 25% vermicompost with the remainder of the medium being made up of the predominantly clay soil contained in the high tunnel.


Each bed was planted with cold hardy plants that students could cultivate and collect data on in through September, October and into November. We transplanted Space spinach and Rhubarb Chard, and direct sowed Arugula and Oscarde lettuce. Students have been watering daily and logging their observations as the plants have grown. Preliminary results have indicated increased benefit from higher amounts of vermicompost, but another year or two of testing will be required to better control various possibilities of experimental errors.



  • Mike Severino is our life sciences teacher and has involved Biology, Agriculture Science, and Agricultural Research classes in this project. Mike has shepherded students as they dug, designed trials, harvested vermicompost, planted crops and collected data.
  • Rob Faux, Tammy Faux, Dana Foster, Andy Dunham, Bill Deutsch and many students helped with digging the pits.
  • Jill Beebout, Sean Skeehan and Ben Bowman helped construct the raised beds.
  • Soci Bassuk (2015 Scattergood graduate) was involved in many parts of this project from digging, designing, microscopy and many other areas.



The most significant result is that microscopy based loosely on the framework from the Soil Foodweb is a valuable and instructive activity in a high school life sciences curriculum. Understanding the complexity of life in the soil and the interconnectedness amongst plants, minerals and microscopic life is completely accessible to teenage students.


We have not yet carried our worms through a winter in the worm pit, so we have no results to report on that aspect of the project. We do have plans in place to accommodate very cold temperatures, so I am optimistic that the worms will live; hopefully they will also remain active.


The growth trials in the raised beds are ongoing and may take a second year to determine conclusive results. Seed germination has been a problem, likely due to the high temperatures in the high tunnel as well as the heavy clay in planting medium, so we may repeat this part of the project but exclusively with transplants.


I can think of no changes except to avoid digging in the low part of the high tunnel. Our finished pit and the experimental raised beds appear likely to be successful. Microscopic analysis of soil and compost has been very successful.



Our project began with an idea profoundly related to sustainability: how can we divert volume from our waste stream and generate fertility? We already had an outlet for food scraps and crop waste, but as a school, we generated lots of waste paper. By scaling up our worm composting system and keeping it active during the cold winter months (when we continue to generate lots of paper waste), we could reduce the volume of product driven to the recycling center while generating a beneficial product to nourish our organic gardens.


Through experimentation and observation we have learned the ideal medium for active worms and hope to replicate it on a larger scale.


We have also learned much about how soil quality is determined by the proper populations of a wide variety of microscopic life forms, including bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes. We are learning how to better identify these things in our soils and composts.


The staff and students in the Scattergood community know more about their consumptive habits as we are encouraged to separate worm-worthy wastes from other products. Members of our community build and manage the vermicomposting systems while others harvest the finished product. We all benefit from the food it helps produce. We are saving money by further closing our fertility loop and generating more of our fertility inputs on campus, rather than importing fertility from other places. We are better able to visualize the circle of connectedness between the lifeforms in the soil that feed the plants, which feed us, who create beneficial products to nurture the soil life.



Please enclose any press releases, news clippings, flyers, brochures, or publications developed during this project. Also send any photos that might be helpful in telling your story to others. Please be sure to get permission to use the photos if they include other people. For photos with youth, you will need their parent’s permission. Please fill out and turn in a NCR-SARE Image Consent form along with your photos.


Taproot Nature Experience, 5-25 youth, multiple times through the summer and fall. Taproot is a preschool and afterschool enrichment program that frequently visits the Scattergood Farm. The teachers are aware of the project and they often make a circuit visiting the vermicomposting station as well as the high tunnel as they make their way around the farm. Taproot kids have a thorough understanding of the project and the progress that has been made.


Outdoors Adventures Camp—12 youth, several times in the summer of 2015. Another day camp similar to Taproot, also visited and learned about our vermicomposting system and plans.


Practical Farmers of Iowa Field Day, 80 attendees on September 26, 2015. Much of the field day focused on our vermicomposting system. We demonstrated our old methods and then toured the high tunnel to see the winter pit and the raised beds. We discussed our process in receiving the Youth Educator SARE Grant and then detailed our construction and methodology. We also discussed at length the results of the student experimentation with different compost media and the use of the resultant leachate.


Iowa Yearly Meeting Conservative, July 23-24— IYM(C) is the Quaker body that owns Scattergood and meets yearly on our campus. About 15 interested attendees were given a tour and all Friends in attendance were given a verbal report which included updates on our vermicomposting projects.


Scattergood Students, parents and employees—we offer occasional tours and work days in which we briefly outline our various projects and sometimes work directly on some of them. All of our students have been exposed to our vermicomposting project in some way, either directly through class or crew work, or less directly through our occasional tours, work days and discussion of farm activities. Parents are given tours during graduation and homecoming weekends.


Many other visitors to the Scattergood Farm—The Scattergood Farm receives many visitors throughout the year, including prospective staff, students and parents, as well as visits by friends, neighbors and other like-minded farmers. Our vermicomposting practices and plans, as well as the working and funding by SARE are frequent topics of discussion while we tour. We also hosted visits by 75 West Branch 5th graders and 2 classes from Willowwind School in Iowa City. Though, the vermicomposting systems were not major features of their visits, we did discuss briefly our practices and plans.


In mid-October two teachers from West Branch Public schools visited with the intent of learning how to scale up their classroom and school vermicomposting systems.


As results become more readily apparent, we will share our findings with visitors to the Scattergood Farm and through opportunities at Practical Farmers of Iowa conferences and other events.



I have only positive things to report about NCR-SARE and their administration of the Youth Educator Grants. When we ran into problems with flooding and earthwork, we were granted an extension without any fuss. Joan Benjamin and others have checked in occasionally for updates and to offer encouragement. This is a great program and we genuinely appreciate its existence and the support given by the NCR-SARE staff.



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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.