Friday, December 19, 2014

Per Capita Davis: Help Harper with its big idea


From page A4 | May 01, 2014 |

I’ll get right to the point. PG&E solicited applications for a $15,000 grant to schools for “Big Ideas” through its partnership with the National Energy Education Development (NEED) Project. The good news is that Davis’ own Harper Junior High School is one of three finalists to receive this grant.

But — and this is where all of us come in — the winner will be determined by which of the three finalist projects receives the most online votes. Before you even read the rest of this column, go to and cast your vote. Multiple votes on multiple devices are allowed (a change from when voting began last Friday).
Locals who want to participate in a voteathon are welcome Thursday from 3:30 to 6 p.m. in Room A2 at Harper, 4000 E. Covell Blvd.

Voting ends at 6 p.m. Friday, May 2, so please vote now.

The website includes a 90-second video that summarizes the remarkable developments at Harper.

Simply put, Harper’s “Big Idea” is really a “Huge Idea,” and it takes seeing it to get your mind around the scope of what has been developed so far and where the leaders of this project will take it if they receive the funds. The project is big enough news that CBS Channel 13 in Sacramento was on site on Monday to highlight the efforts of students and teachers.

Essentially, the Harper Huge Idea is to create a model of sustainability that demonstrates energy efficiency, the importance of connecting to local food sources, and provides students a hands-on living laboratory to experience and learn about sustainability in a wide variety of academic disciplines.

The focus of this grant application is on creating “an outdoor STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning lab” that is available to all Davis schools. The video, narrated by Brian Donnelly, director of the Davis school district’s Green Schools STEM Program, describes this very well. The funds, if received, will facilitate several innovative projects, including construction of a human-powered (bicycle) irrigation system.

These new projects will build on years of work and dedication of Harper staff (under the leadership of Principal Zena Ingles), in particular Carrie Juchau, a bona fide local hero. Juchau has been the motor behind what began as a fairly modest school garden with a few areas for students to plant and grow vegetables. The “garden” has turned into a 3-acre “farm” that just this year produced more than 600 pounds of broccoli and other vegetables for the school lunch program.

Juchau also established a partnership with UC Davis, including bringing super-volunteer, greenhouse manager and all-around expert Garry Pearson to cultivate the soil and educate students about agricultural techniques, irrigation systems and plant science. She also worked with the Sacramento Tree Foundation to teach students about the value of trees and help plant fruit trees at the garden.

A school garden is nice. A school farm is even nicer. But what is really significant about the Harper Farm is the many ways it connects to the education of students. Students from multiple disciplines get out of the classroom and use the farm and its environs for real-world, hands-on learning. Just a few examples:

* Harper established an agricultural biology class that, in conjunction with Future Farmers of America, teaches students to identify and understand the biology of agricultural seeds, crops and weeds. The class prepares students for high school agricultural study and activities, including a barn currently nurturing seven hogs, four goats, one lamb and 35 laying chickens.

One student’s FFA project is to grow and process tomatoes from 144 plants. Teacher Ellie Michel says students will take what they have learned to a statewide FFA competition in San Luis Obispo. This may not be growing up on a farm, but it’s a close urban equivalent.

* Harper art classes are learning design in conjunction with planning a mural for installation on a wall of the school garden shed and creation of mosaic stepping stones for the garden.

* Students in English classes are using the farm for writing assignments on topics such as how what we eat influences our health and have translated this into actively assisting in determining which crops to plant on the farm and then actually planting them.

* The entire school district benefits as students from other schools take field trips to experience the Harper Farm. The entire Davis community benefits as roughly 20 percent of the 20-by-20-foot garden plots have been made available as community garden plots, thereby helping make the farm productive over the summer months when school is not in session.

Juchau and Donnelly’s success in transforming the school garden into a student farm and STEM laboratory is a rare and magnificent accomplishment and one the district can and should brag about. The farm as it is and as it will be is a real prize that organizers have elevated above the level of an optional or elective activity.

The farm embodies many of the core values and the educational mission of the district and I hope this will result in providing sufficient resources (it shouldn’t take much) to engage a farm manager to ensure its sustainability.

Now that you’ve read this far, it’s time to go back to the “Big Idea” website and vote again to help the Harper project win the $15,000. Thanks for helping.

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis; his column is published on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Send comments to



John Mott-Smith

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