Grant-funded tower gardens grow children's curiosity in science

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COLUMBIA - A ribbon cutting ceremony will officially mark the introduction of Columbia Public Schools' new tower gardens Thursday at 9 a.m. 

Tower gardens allow students to grow plants inside without soil. According to CPS Science Coordinator Mike Szydlowski, they use 90 percent less water and grow plants three times faster at sizes 30 percent larger than traditional gardens. 

Szydlowski has already installed 15 tower gardens and said he expects to finish installing the last five by the end of the week. Each of the 20 elementary schools in the district will have one. 

President of the Columbia Public Schools Foundation Lynn Barnett said the $18,270 grant for the tower gardens is one of three grants the foundation has provided for the school district this year. Barnett said the project was chosen because it will make an impact on a large number of children—around eight thousand—and help children develop into productive adults.

"For this particular grant what was really, really interesting was our world is dealing with hunger and production of food as it relates to water issues and space issues so this, using these growing powers, is a way that food can be grown larger, and it can be grown faster and with very little water," she said. Barnett said the foundation hopes the children will grow up to be "contributors to developing new ways to feed the world's population."

Szydlowski said the tower gardens provoke thought and wonderment.

"A lot of the parents have learned science by textbooks and memorizing content and it doesn't stick, and there's so many things in society, in our culture right now that involves problem solving and using wonderment and trying to find new ways to solve problems that we don't even know about so we wanna get new opportunities for the kids to be curious," he said.

Szydlowski said children start school very curious, but it decreases as they get older because the science gets harder. He said he believes the tower gardens will help children create and maintain a passion for experimenting and learning about science. 

Dexter Fox is a third grader at Russell Boulevard Elementary, where Szydlowski installed a tower garden in the library Wednesday.

"I think it's gonna be fun having this in our school because we come here often," Dexter said. 

Addelyn Bell is also a third grader at Russell Boulevard. She said science is her favorite subject because she likes doing experiments and learning about the world. She said she's excited about having the tower garden.

"I think it's just gonna be really cool to have," Addelyn said. 

Szydlowski said he will start throwing competitions in mid-January, like which school can grow the largest head of lettuce. Students can experiment by changing the formula for nutrients, adjusting the light timers or using different types of lettuce.

"What you won't see here is step-by-step lessons or experiments to do," he said. "We want them to come up with the questions and then ask me for the materials of what they want to test."

Columbia Public Schools Foundation board members, school administrators and Columbia Chamber of Commerce representatives will attend the ribbon cutting inside Parkade Elementary School, which has a tower garden in the lobby. Students will plant the tower's first seedlings during the ceremony.