Sustainable Agriculture Internship Including Study of Compost Nutrient Cycling in Urban Agriculture

Final report for YENC18-129

Project Type: Youth Educator
Funds awarded in 2018: $2,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2020
Grant Recipient: Spark Youth
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Manager:
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Project Information


Last summer Spark-Y facilitated our most successful summer internship yet. 26 youth joined us to engage in real-world community projects and hands-on learning about sustainability. Of those 26 youth (all of whom were paid competitive stipends), 16 were local high schoolers and 10 were college students from around the country. The interns were divided into five project groups:

  1. Building a new timberframed aquaponics system for Spark-Y's Urban Agriculture Lab
  2. Managing the school gardens and aquaponics systems at three public schools in Northeast Minneapolis
  3. Designing and running a 3 week summer camp program for Columbia Heights middle schoolers focused around aquaponics, fish and plants
  4. Building a new aquaponics system for a corporate CEO's office
  5. Designing and installing a rain garden at Roosevelt High School and caring for the Roosevelt urban farm

Interns spent Wednesdays and Thursdays working on their projects, and we all came together on Tuesdays for workshops and extended learning opportunities. Tuesday workshops included exploring vermicomposting, mycology, permaculture design principles, and a field trip to visit locations like Frogtown Farms and The Good Acre. In addition to these sustainable agriculture topics, we had guest speakers from local companies come in to teach project management skills, entrepreneurship, and leadership skills.

Beyond our normal internship structure, this funding from SARE allowed us to participate in a special partnership with the University of St Thomas. We chose our Roosevelt High School internship team as the best fit to partner with St Thomas based on their research needs to install lysimeters below ground to monitor phosphorous. As the team was digging out space for the rain garden at Roosevelt, they were able to install lysimeters, collect data and participate in the larger research project.

By the end of the summer, all 26 interns crossed a stage, shook Mayor Frey's hand, and received a Spark-Y Sustainability Certificate. At our Open House event, interns presented their work and discoveries to a bustling room of 150+ community members. Each intern team also wrote up a blog post explaining their work(here's an example from the rain garden team: Keep Calm and Rain On, others can be found at; many of these included personal testimonials about the power of their experience. Many parents at the Open House voiced that they hadn't heard much about sustainable or organic agriculture before, but were now interested in learning more and supporting their children in gardening at home or in the community. More quantitatively, our interns grew over 150 lbs of produce using organic practices and engaged with 250+ community members. Interns and the St Thomas research team determined that the samples collected from the Roosevelt lysimeters had very low dissolved phosphorous (Effect of WTR on Nutrient Retention) and were able to use this data in the larger study which concluded that water treatment residual is effective at removing excess phosphorous from leachate. 

Project Objectives:

1. Provide student interns with project management, entrepreneurial, and sustainable systems training.
2. Empower students to educate and inspire their communities through presentations demonstrating that green
agricultural systems are both approachable and offer return-on-investment.
3. Provide student interns with real-world project management experience, including client relationships and completion of deliverables, to equip them to successfully champion sustainable causes.
4. Collaborate with a University of St. Thomas research group on nutrient study to ascertain how efficiently phosphorus from organic compost is recycled, with a goal to establish parameters that maximize yields and minimize pollution/runoff.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Cecelia Watkins (Educator)
  • Sarah Pilato (Educator)
  • Michael Bradley (Educator)
  • Gaston Small (Educator and Researcher)
  • Michaela Neu (Educator)

Educational & Outreach Activities

5 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Published press articles, newsletters
2 Tours
6 Webinars / talks / presentations
12 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

26 Youth
40 Parents
18 Educators
210 Other adults
Education/outreach description:

The bulk of our educational activities were the internship work days in which teams were at their project sites tending existing sustainable food production systems and building new ones. Second to this were our professional development days, which contained many experientially grounded presentations.

In addition to this, multiple sets of Farm Manuals were created by last summer's internship team, including the Roosevelt Manual, and others which instruct how to care for the school gardens and aquaponics systems at our three Northeast Minneapolis school partners. The Roosevelt team also wrote up curriculum on how to lead other groups in designing and creating a rain garden (Rain-Garden-Project-Logistics-Presentation). The Northeast schools team led 2 sets of public tours around their school food systems. Our Open House event got a write up in the Northeaster newspaper, and several videos of Mayor Frey's speech at our Open House were spread around social media.

Learning Outcomes

26 Youth reporting change in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness
Results and discussion:

A majority of our youth reported feeling confident that they could make a positive difference in their communities after the internship, and all reported increased knowledge about sustainable agriculture practices.

Although we didn't directly work with farmers, we trust that the research resulting from our partnership with St Thomas will be shared with farmers as well as local community gardeners.

Project Outcomes

2 Grants received that built upon this project
5 New working collaborations
Increased organizational support to explore and teach sustainable ag:
Sustainable Agriculture practices parents adopted:

Parents expressed interest and enthusiasm to pursue a variety of new practices at home, including backyard gardening, community gardening, composting through the city, and vermicomposting.

Success stories:

Two high school interns (rising sophomores) began the internship as soft spoken and shy. By the end of the summer, they had volunteered to take the lead in speaking at our Open House. They did an incredible job writing and practicing their speech, touching on the complexity of sustainability, integrating humor and examples of their lived experience, and the crowd of 150+ Open House attendees loved them. 

One high school intern from the Columbia Heights team said: “I think my favorite part of the camp was seeing the campers grow in knowledge. They started off with no idea of what aquaponics was, and in the end they became experts. I think they gained a lot from this program; not only did it spark new interests in them, but they learned about sustainability and were able to define and explain what it means and how important it is. At the end of the three weeks, not only did the students grow, but I believe our team grew as well. I loved this experience. If I have the chance to keep teaching younger kids about sustainability and our environment and how important it is, I would gladly do it again."

Another intern who worked on building the timberframed aquaponics system said, "After building the new aquaponic system for Spark-Y, I felt like I could do anything."

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.