Worming towards a better way: Composting project reduces waste, sparks young scientists in Jackson schools
When the bell rang for the end of school Friday afternoon, Jeff Vamvakias’ room at Cullowhee Valley Elementary emptied a lot less completely than is typical for a middle school on the edge of a weekend. Seven students — six of them eighth-graders, one sixth-grader — hung around after buses left, but they weren’t there for detention or make-up work or mandated study time.
They were there to talk about worms. Their worms.
“It’s interesting to see how the worms help bring the soil back to life by using things that we would normally throw away and turning it into something good,” said K.J. Ammons, an eighth-grader who’s part of Vamvakias’ student worm team.
As Ammons spoke, that’s just what the worms in question — more than 100 of them, the students estimated — were doing. In the black composting bin pushed against the teaching desk at the front of the classroom, they busily munched away at the meal of newspaper and cafeteria scraps the students had fed them, passing the food bits through their system to emerge as worm castings, a fancy name for worm poop. It’s also some of the highest-quality compost around.
The project is part of a school district’s initiative to stop throwing away so many food scraps and turn them into something useful. This year, the first for the program, one classroom in each of the district’s nine schools is equipped with a worm bin — called vermicomposting — with an eye to expanding it in the future.
“There’s this food that has this weight to it that’s going in the trash,” said Laura Cabe, nutrition director for Jackson County Schools, of the produce served at the cafeteria. “Of course that costs a lot of money too. We started looking into it and saw vermicomposting. It was just extremely interesting.”
The program’s met an enthusiastic reception, Cabe said, and she’d like to see more classrooms across the district get a worm project going. While the initial bins were purchased commercially, do-it-yourself worm bins cost as little as five or ten dollars.
Aside from the reduced waste, the possibilities for the resulting compost are endless. It could be used on school gardens, school landscaping, or sold as a fundraiser.
“A lot of times in the cafeteria, I look at how kids waste food, and it makes me kind of sad because there are a lot of children in third-world counties who don’t have enough to eat,” said eighth-grader Becky Pechmann, a member of Vamvakias’ crew. “I wanted to do something so it wouldn’t just be thrown away.”
Those kinds of speeches are music to Vamvakias’ ears. For the second-year science teacher, learning is all about doing. At least, that’s what he’s learned himself through a varied professional past that’s included everything from teaching yoga to doing research in Yosemite National Park to playing in a rock band. He came to teaching later in life and holds degrees in physics, astronomy and geology.
“My idea about education is that kids learn by doing stuff, human people learn by doing stuff,” Vamvakias said. “You learn because things are relevant to your life and you find some passion in them.”
That’s a maxim he’s lived by even before the worms came along. A 60-gallon tank at the back of Vamvakias’ room holds a hatch of tiny trout, part of a project through Trout Unlimited that has students see the fish through from egg to hatchling to river-ready. He gets the kids outside doing science field-work when he can, and he leverages his friendships with professional scientists around the world to let kids do end-of-unit Skype interviews with experts in the field they’ve just finished studying.
That’s why, when Jackson County Public Schools decided to start exploring the possibilities of vermiculture — the official term for composting with worms — Vamvakias was eager to volunteer his classroom to pilot the program for Cullowhee Valley.
“This project is a way for the kids to see the reality of waste and that waste goes into garbage dumps and it will cost us a lot of money,” Vamvakias said. “But here we have an opportunity to use a natural cycle — worms — to take that waste and turn that waste into soil.”
The school systems’ waste-reduction efforts don’t stop at worms. For instance, schools now have “share tables,” where students can drop off the cafeteria food they’re required to take but know they won’t eat for other students to pick up. Whatever is left over gets donated to The Community Table food pantry, with $2,600 of food donated between August and December of 2015. The system’s also ramped up its recycling efforts, saving $9,000 through a district-wide recycling and waste reduction program during that same timeframe.
While the worms don’t each eat in comparison to those numbers — a cup or two of scraps a week — they’re the most hands-on component of Jackson’s waste-reduction efforts, and the results have Vamvakias’ students pretty excited.
“It takes something small that a lot of people overlook and shows how important they are to society, especially with recycling and helping the earth out,” said eighth-grader Maya Sterling.
“I think this is going to help a lot of other people learn how to take care of their planet,” agreed eighth-grader Noah Hinton.
It’s also got the kids learning, a lot. Cameron Macke can tell you offhand that the earth holds about 6,000 species of earthworms, with Ammons throwing in that the temperature “sweet spot” is between 72 and 74 degrees. He can rattle off specific stats, such as the fact that worms lay about 36 eggs a week and the population in the container can double each month.
“You can see if they’re healthy or not by shining a light on them,” Ammons said. “If they burrow down, that means they’re healthy because they’re sensitive to the light.”
If you were walked into the room blindfolded, you just might be convinced that you were talking to a panel of scientists, not a bunch of eighth-grade kids.
“I’m super proud of these kids and the depth of their knowledge,” Vamvakias said.
Make your own bin
When it comes to worms, you can go fancy or you can go simple. Commercial worm composting setups are available, but it takes just a few minutes to get your own vermiculture system going using materials lying around the house.
1. Find a large, plastic container with a lid — rubber totes work well — and drill holes all around it. The goal is to allow air to flow in and out of your compost bin.
2. Make bedding for your worms with newspaper strips, and moisten it with water. You’ll want to end up with 3-4 inches of moist newspaper.
3. Add a layer of soil to give the worms enough grit to aid with digestion and helpful microbes to facilitate the decomposition process.
4. Add the worms.
5. Feed them your food scraps. For best results, cut the scraps up into small pieces before adding them, and don’t overfeed the worms. Worms consume roughly half their body weight each day, so use a 2-to-1 ratio to gauge how many worms you need. But they multiply quickly, so it can be best to start out with a few less than you’ll really need.
6. Cover the bin contents with a piece of newspaper.
7. When the worms have done their work, harvest the compost.