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Worms teach all about science: Vermiculture in the classroom

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Catherine W. Idzerda
January 9, 2012
— You can learn a lot from a brick of worms.

Chemistry, biology, soil science, environmental science and botany ooze out of that 12-by-12 inch block of red wrigglers.


At Lake Geneva's Badger High School, agriculture teacher Candice Olson has made worms part of her curriculum.


It's called vermiculture: That's vermes, as in Latin for "worms," and culture, as in Latin for "to care for."


Vermiculture involves buying worms and a bin, filling it with a mix of compost-ready vegetables or fruit and shredded newspaper and letting the worms break it all down.


The worms in question aren't the kind you'd find in your garden. They're red wrigglers that come in a brick of peat moss.


The resulting compost, which is referred to as "worm casings," is rich in nutrients and is a valuable addition to flower or vegetable gardens.


Olson's adventures in vermiculture started with a 2010 Ag in the Classroom mini-grant that allowed her to buy a single worm bin. A second grant meant she could expand from one bin to a small suburb of bins in one of the school's greenhouses.


So what do students learn from studying worms?


-- Soil science, botany and chemistry.


Here's some basic botany: The quality of soil is crucial to the health and productivity of plants. Roots take in nutrients and water from the soil, and any imbalance will affect the plant.


Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium—there's that chemistry—serve as the main nutrients. But soil additions must also help aerate the soil and provide binding sites—chemistry again—for micronutrients.


When the worms have broken down the compost, the worm casings will be spread around plants in the school's greenhouse.


Students compare synthetic and non-synthetic fertilizers to see which works best and which will have the fewest aftereffects on the environment.


-- Hands-on science


"Our programs involve a lot of inquiry-based scientific learning," Olson said.


Translation: Critical thinking and problem solving are an important part of every project.


This leads to questions such as "Why are your classmates' worms doing better than yours? Is it a lack of water? A bad carbon-to-nitrogen ratio?"


-- Leadership and teaching skills


"A big thing the worm bins get used for is our Agriscience Day," Olson said.


During Agriscience Day, FFA members teach more than 200 third-grade students about farming, veterinary science, soil science and a variety of other subjects at six learning stations.


The worm bins are used as part of the soil science section, and kids learn why worms are important to soil health.


"The students love teaching the third-graders," Olson said.


Students in the school's biotechnology classes create the lessons for Agriscience Day.



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