Carlton students say YES to improving the school

A group of Carlton High School students are enthusiastically embracing recycling, gardening and aquaponics this year. The students helped design and build recycling bins and learned how to grow produce on top of a fish aquarium.

Carlton High School junior Mark Matlack proudly shows the flourishing basil plants the YES! Team grew on a piece of styrofoam floating on top of a fish tank for the aquaponics project at the school. Jamie Lund/

A group of Carlton High School students are enthusiastically embracing recycling, gardening and aquaponics this year. The students helped design and build recycling bins and learned how to grow produce on top of a fish aquarium.

The projects are offered by the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center and the Laurentian Environmental Center in a program called YES!

(Youth Energy Summit). The Carlton students were awarded the All Star and Community Leadership and Education Awards for their 2015-2016 project accomplishments and received $750 to be applied for future YES! projects.

Early in the school year, several of the students visited the center to learn more about the programs.

“We have speakers as we try to help jump-start the thought process about what can you do to make a difference in your schools,” said Jim DeVries, Northeast Minnesota YES! coordinator.


They also visited the Food Farm in Wrenshall, the Cloquet Forestry Center and Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College throughout the year to learn about how to garden successfully.

YES! helps teach the youth how to be more environmentally conscious with the projects and hopes they will take their newfound knowledge with them outside of school too.

Carlton junior Mark Matlack is excited about how prolific the basil plants grew on top of the aquarium in the aquaponics project. For those not familiar with the term, aquaponics is a system of aquaculture in which the waste produced by farmed fish or other aquatic animals supplies nutrients for plants grown hydroponically (in water) which, in turn, purifies the water.

The group wanted to start out with a smaller project, so they used two 10-gallon aquariums, one for lettuce and the other for basil. The group researched how to create bacteria to produce the nitrates needed by the plants for food.

Their teacher and advisor, Tracy Bockbrader, attended a class to learn about aquaponics so she could help the students if they had problems. While the advisors were available for advice if the students hit a roadblock, they let the students do the work.

“And they really do know what they are doing, even though it was the first year with the project,” junior Taylor Anderson said.

Once the bacteria were balanced, the group was able to move to the next step. By that time the seeds had been planted onto the styrofoam and were about an inch tall.

“Then we put our plants on a little floating pieces of styrofoam and we put a bubbler in the tank so they get oxygen through their roots,” Matlack explained. “We planted the seeds and we are working on our second batch of lettuce and are doing really well on our basil.”


The basil was used by foreign exchange students when they cooked meals from their home country for the students.

The students needed a grow light for the plants and were given some that had been confiscated by the sheriff’s department.

As fascinating as the aquaponics work was, the project that everyone in the school participated in was the recycling.

The YES! group brainstormed for a project that would have an impact and save energy. They noticed the recycling efforts at the school had been dropping over the last few years and decided to get it moving forward again.

“We figured out a way we could make big recycling bins so that kids could separate out when they recycle,” junior Erika Fox said.

The students worked with shop/art teacher Jared Czech to come up with a design and build the bins.

The students were surprised by how quickly their classmates and the faculty began using the new bins as soon as they were set up. They expected to empty the bins weekly, but were surprised when it needed to be done every other day.

“It’s impressive how much we have filtered out of our trash,” Anderson said. “It’s really cool to see how kids react to something like that and jumped on board with it.”


According to a press release by YES!, knowing that just having the bins around school would not be enough, they began an advertising campaign to empower students to recycle. They even recruited key staff to assist in their efforts.

“The early results were an elimination of 80-100 pounds of waste per month being diverted from the landfill,” the release noted.

The final project the students worked on was planning a school garden. The students wanted to offer other students who may not otherwise have an opportunity to garden to be able to become involved with the project.

They were also hoping the garden would provide enough produce to be incorporated into the school meals by the cooks.

The ambitious youth planned to make a raised foundation for the garden on school property. They had a pile of dirt delivered to the site, then a city worker informed them they couldn't build a garden there because that’s where the city dumps snow.

“The city said they would be willing to help us move it and maybe give us some fence,” Matlack said.

The other roadblock the team ran into with the garden was acquiring pallets. The students planned to get about 50 pallets from a local business, but the day before they were to pick them up, the pallets were destroyed. The problem-solving students began calling around until they were able to find pallets elsewhere.

“We have had to do a lot of bouncing back from things that have happened,” Matlack said.


The city of Carlton has also offered to donate some large concrete planters if the group want to use them around the school.

“Let kids take control of the projects. When you make a whole bunch of kids think, we put our heads together and come up with some ideas,” Anderson said. “If you let the kids do most of the work they will be more involved and care more … it may take a little longer but the whole process will be more fun.”

The YES! coordinator agreed.

“The Carlton High School YES! Team did some incredible problem solving and implemented some innovative solutions to their projects,” DeVries said.

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