BROCKWAY — Brockway Area Elementary School students got a rare opportunity to play in the dirt and let worms wriggle through their fingers Friday as the first of the district’s composters were constructed.

Jackie Manno of Clarion University of Pennsylvania wrote a grant, partnering with the Brockway Area School District and the Quiet Creek Herb Farm and School of Country Living to create two composters that were filled with worms.

“It’s a $3,000 DEP mini-grant, and they strongly encourage you to have at least two partners,” Manno said. “We had the school district, so we got Quiet Creek Herb Farm and School of Country Living to join us. They built the boxes and provided the base of the program. Clarion is providing the support, and I brought three block early-childhood students to help out.”

Manno was joined on-site by Clarion University students R.J. Schugg from Pittsburgh, Rachel Thompson of Clarion, Morgan Gober from Bethlehem, and Summer Murray from the state of Rhode Island. They volunteered to teach mini-lessons to the Brockway elementary students in relation to this project.

The boxes are made of rough-cut timber on the outside. Inside is an insulated material with an aluminum frame, the top covered in a metal housing roof. In addition, the floor has mesh to keep burrowing animals out.

Quiet Creek’s Claire Orner and her husband Rusty designed and built the composting boxes. They needed to be insulated to keep the worms alive during the winter. They also needed lids so the composting materials do not attract flies and other unwanted creatures.

Worms – 10,000 of them – writhed in the materials in the boxes, and the elementary students dug into the boxes, picking out worms and even naming some.

“The kids were so excited!” Manno said. “They wanted to hold worms and touch the compost. They’re already calling them, ‘Our Brockway worms.’ I love how they’re taking ownership already.”

Claire Orner agreed.

“Being at Brockway is so enjoyable,” she said. “It’s worthwhile to see how excited they are. We’re passing the planet forward to these kids, and they’re so interested. They want to hold worms and learn about the soil. We expected the elementary students, but the high school students are very excited as well.”

Orner has been involved in other, similar projects at places like Jeff Tech, and Brockway decided that they wanted in on the worm wrangling. As with many projects, this one began with a simple question and a not-so-obvious answer.

“Amy Glasl approached me and asked what we can do together between Clarion University and the elementary school,” Manno explained. “I said, ‘How about worms?’ Amy thought that was a great idea. She moved to her new job, and Candace (Patricelli) loved the idea and helped make it happen this year.”

The first day of the worm project required some explanation and exploration. Elementary teachers brought their students to the site and had them sit on the sidewalk. They learned about the worms and their importance before moving over to boxes where they could see worms in action. Manno or her students explained the worms while Orner took over at the boxes.

At one point, Manno got tied up and a group showed up on the sidewalk. Her college sophomores gathered around a case of worms, dumped some dirt out, and began teaching the introductory lesson like their professor had earlier.

“My students are taking over, showing the kids worms and answering questions,” she said. “As a teacher, it’s hard not to jump in and make sure they’re doing okay. This is what they want to do, and they’re doing a great job and taking charge!”

While the four college students taught the group of fifth graders, Manno hoped that this would give her students a plan for the future.

“As their professor, I want them to see this and think, ‘That’s neat! I want to do that!’” she said. “When they get to their first teaching jobs, I want them to think back to this and make it a part of their schools. Earlier, they saw the excitement in the kids and were surprised. I don’t think they expected elementary kids to be so excited about worms! But they are. Claire is over there getting these kids to chant, ‘We love worms!’ as loudly as they can. It’s great.”

Orner had the young kids chanting, playing, and learning. She handled each question quickly, as third grade students came up with curveballs like, “What can I name this worm?” and fifth grade students asked, “Can I do this at home?”

All of this lines up with what Orner does at Quiet Creek.

“Our farm teaches about sustainability,” Orner said. “We teach about passing God’s creation forward. In our culture, we have a linear view of garbage – it goes from us to the landfill. And while landfills serve a purpose, much of that waste is biodegradable. We can reuse it and make it something new and useful. We can take paper, food, yard waste, and such to feed to worms to produce ‘worm wonder.’ Worm wonder is a type of fertilized soil that is great for plant food. Yes, it’s basically worm poop, but it feeds plants and is sustainable.”

Orner demonstrated how the new composters work. She took the remains of her lunch and put them in the composter along with the other composting materials. Students will be gathering their own food waste and using it to feed the worms and create compost.

“Farmers, before we started making fertilizers out of natural gas products, used composting to fertilize their crops,” Orner said. “Some still do, but many don’t. We’re bringing this natural farming back, creating a cycle that return these nutrients to the earth.”

The composters are located beside the elementary school and behind the playground. Students who were on recess ran over and asked to touch worms. The worms will soon be theirs to maintain. The worm excitement squirmed quickly through the elementary school and then dug into the high school.

“We thought we’d just have the elementary school over here, but the ag classes with Mr. [Kyle] Norman and Mr. [Matt] Holt have been here, too,” Manno said. “Mr. Norman brought his high school agriculture class over earlier, just after Rusty and Claire got here. The boxes weren’t assembled yet, just on the ground in pieces. Before we knew it, the students jumped in and started assembling them. They helped put the boxes together in no-time.”

Manno explained that Superintendent Dan Hawkins and Elementary Principal Candace Patricelli were extremely excited to see this project work. Brockway’s agriculture program is popular in the school and growing – now having a barn, orchard, greenhouse, high-tunnel, and running the farmers’ market. The “worm wonder” being created in the composters, one day, will help grow flowers and crops at the school.

“This program is really about how we are all part of the same ecosystem,” Manno said. “We can make simple changes, like composting waste, like our food, to make a big difference for our local environment.”

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