Malcolm X fourth-graders got to dig into a science assignment this year when they recycled cafeteria waste using live worms as composting agents.
All schoolyear the children cared for thousands of worms that they kept warm in bins kept on the school grounds. Meanwhile, they collected hundreds of pounds of food waste from the cafeteria that would have otherwise been garbage.
“We got orange peels and other things people don't eat,” fourth-grader Lamont Woods said.
The project taught the children the value of recycling, the process of organic composting, and about worms, said science teacher Larry Kaas.
“We used the worm compost as a laboratory... to show that the nutrient cycle doesn’t just exist way out in the woods,” Kaas said. “It can be part of our daily lives at school.”
Last week’s “worm rodeo” was an event in which the kids rounded up the earthworms’ nutrient-rich castings, or worm droppings, from compost bins near the school’s garden. The castings are an excellent fertilizer, and when added to soil improve its structure, texture, aeration and water retention.
Earthworms are efficient agents of decomposition. They can recycle one pound of organic waste in 24 hours. A typical composting process, one without worm-power, requires more steps and attention to carbon-nitrogen ratio and other environmental factors.
The students were responsible for care of the compost pile, and monitored its progress daily. “You have to check on the worms: ‘Do they have enough food? Do they have air? Do they have enough newspaper?’ ” said fourth-grader Dinonnae Hopkins.
Dinonnae and Cathy Moran shredded newspaper and set it in the worm bin. Damp paper is easiest for the worms to digest, said Cathy, who described one of her duties this year as pouring water over newspaper beds.
In healthy compost bins, worm populations can grow rapidly to consume four to six pounds of food scraps a week. About four to six months after starting the box, the worms will have converted all of the bedding and most of the food waste into castings. The castings are “rounded up” for the composting process to begin.
“I hope they learned that they can make a difference in their community,” Kaas said. His fourth- and fifth-grade students kept over 500 pounds of food scraps out of the landfill and returned the nutrients to the garden that will grow some food for them next year.