A few thousand worms wiggle through decomposed banana peels, vegetables, and scraps of bread, adding their own waste to a thick, black muck contained by layered plastic bins.
Streamwood High School students in Greg Reiva's physical science classes dig through the muck, separating out worms, not-yet decomposed food and cocoons from the micronutrient-rich vermicompost, collecting data all the while. They steep the vermicompost in a 5-gallon bucket inside a contraption vaguely resembling a tea strainer, where, for two days, it releases its micronutrients into water and produces liquid fertilizer.
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The finished product -- worm tea -- is poured into waiting pots of basil, chives, spinach, tomatoes and lettuce growing in a greenhouse also filling Reiva's classroom.
The whole system is largely run with energy from solar panels harnessing the sun's power and directing it to Reiva's lab.
Reiva of Algonquin has taught physical science at Streamwood High School for 18 years, incorporating projects like this into chemistry and physics courses too. Once spring semester ends, the worm farms get relocated to his garage and the plants to his front porch or garden.
There they spend the summer as he figures out what projects to try next year. It's the hands-on activities that engage his students, allowing them to set aside their textbooks.
"It's a much more real aspect of doing science than the traditional labs or experiments," Reiva said.
Reiva's students work for entire semesters trying to figure out how to increase plant growth while maintaining high vitality. His lessons teach them the value of collecting data, require them to support their claims and incorporate interdisciplinary concepts.
New ideas constantly inspire Reiva to expand his projects and create new ones. He has worked with grant money awarded by BP, Toshiba, Motorola and he is hoping for up to $25,000 from a grant application he recently submitted to ING Financial Services. More money means more possibilities.
Next year, he hopes to grow enough basil in his classroom to supply the Streamwood High School culinary department. If his classes can produce enough worm tea, he wants to reach out to community gardening groups or farmers markets and try to sell the liquid fertilizer. If the funding comes through, he wants to expand his program to the elementary and middle schools that feed into Streamwood High School.
For Reiva, project-based learning inspires his students best.
"Other countries already switched over to doing science, not learning science," Reiva said, pointing to Finland, Indonesia and China as examples. "The whole curriculum is projects."
One student's research this year showed the greenhouse running with more electricity than supplied by the solar panels. Next year, he wants his students to take on the challenge of figuring out how to make the system entirely carbon-neutral.
In the end, Reiva's teaching always circles back to sustainability. He tries to open his students' eyes to alternatives to their energy-intensive lives. That passion stretches beyond the classroom for the environmentalist who nervously monitors studies about warming global temperatures.
"I'm worried sick about this," Reiva said. "If these kids don't worry sick with us, if they don't realize things here have got to change, we're going to be in trouble."