West Side students gather STEM knowledge with vegetable gardens through the GEAR UP program

Gary’s West Side Leadership Academy students celebrate fall awards beyond tomatoes and beans.

The students, part of one of nine Indiana GEAR UP programs, watched as a new greenhouse was unveiled next to 10 raised beds on the west side of the school.

Nearby, hamburgers are rolled on the grill along with other snacks for students to enjoy.

GEAR UP Associate Director of School Programs Steve Heinold said he is planning a gardening project starting in 2018 in partnership with Purdue Extension Service and the Shirley Heinz Land Trust.

“Our goal is to expand the greenhouse and garden into the curriculum,” he said. He said the $4,000 greenhouse arrived in a kit the students helped assemble.

Last spring, students built raised beds behind the school near the stadium entrance and filled them with dirt before planting vegetables.

“We want to take every opportunity we can to expose students to STEM careers,” said Kerchel Hobson, director of high school curriculum in Gary. “This is science,” she said of the greenhouse.

Before graduating in June, Clarence Grier said he helped start the garden. “We put the wood together and filled it with dirt,” he said.

“Students decide what they want to plant,” said Grier, who has been a part of GEAR UP since 9th grade.

Seniors Anthony Parker and Jazlyn Muniz, both 17, watered a bed of collards that would eventually be donated for a Thanksgiving meal.

“It’s a good learning experience. I’m thinking of making my own mini garden,” Muniz said.

GEAR UP is not a short term approach.

Starting in middle school, it tracks students in the classes of 2022 and 2023 across nine school districts. Those 7,000 students will receive college and career readiness support until they graduate and enter post-secondary school.

Grier said he plans to enroll at Purdue Polytechnic Institute at Subaru’s manufacturing campus in Lafayette.

Indiana’s GEAR UP, and acronym for Advance Awareness and Undergraduate Readiness Programs, is led by Purdue University staff and the Indiana Commission on Higher Education.

Anita Johnson, regional director of GEAR UP, took off the roof of a new greenhouse at Gary's West Side Leadership Academy on Thursday.

The $24.5 million project is funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Heinold said, adding that GEAR Up will soon launch another group at two Gary middle schools.

Linda Boddy-Fernandez, a program assistant with the Purdue Extension Service in Lake County, coordinated the garden project, which includes hairy bushes, bushy green beans, purple basil, lemon balm, mint tomatoes, collards and peppers. The students selected plants from a seed catalog, she said.

She said the garden will double in size next year as the students start seeds in pots in the new greenhouse, allowing them to learn horticulture year-round.

Joseph Coburn, a 17-year-old senior, joined the GEAR UP program in 7th grade. He likes the opportunities and after school tutoring and has a new found love for gardening.

“It’s a great idea. I have been gardening at home for years. It is good to learn how to plant vegetables. I will definitely continue to be a gardener,” said Coburn, who is eyeing a hospitality management major at Purdue.

Carol Carlson is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.

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