“It is vital not only for our students to see what is available in our community but it’s also vital for the community to see how fantastic our kids are,” said Kris Denton.
Denton knows how important education and community are. The Omaha North graduate now works with kids from the same neighborhood she grew up in, first as a 5th grade teacher at Minne Lusa and now as a teacher and Magnet Facilitator at King Science and Technology Magnet Center. The trail-blazing, creative educator took a detour into optical manager before following her lifelong passion to teach.
She said one of the most notable collaborations has been with Gregg Fripp of Whispering Roots, a non-profit that aims to teach individuals how to have self-sustaining farms and gardens in their yards.
Denton explained, “He’d done a lot of in-depth study on the concept of urban deserts and King Science sits in the middle of an urban desert. I could take my students and walk to a gas station and get any processed food we want, but we are not within walking distance of a grocery store where we could get fresh produce.”
So King Science partnered with Fripp though UNO’s Service Learning Academy and created a whole project where the students have built aquaponics systems in Denton’s classroom. She said they started with one, are now up to two and are getting ready to build a third.
“The basis behind aquaponics is you have a large fish tank and the protein produced by the fish tank goes up into a soilless grow bed and provides the nutrients for the plants. The best part is it’s all organic and completely healthy,” said Denton.
The students are able to harvest fresh produce every 4-6 weeks. Most recently, they’ve been donating the produce to the Open Door Mission after it has been harvested.
“And just from the project with Whispering Roots alone, we’ve been able to branch out and help build a system over at Bancroft Elementary. So my students have had the opportunity to go there and work with 2nd and 3rd graders. Then those students take a field trip and come to our school and see the big system and compare it to their little system. It’s a pretty amazing thing,” Denton said.
When she started the aquaponics system she just thought it would be cool for science but said the more the students got into it, the more excited they became. Denton said lots of people have visited the school to learn about the system and she always introduces visitors to the students who are in charge of the system. The kids talk about how they take care of it and what they have learned from the process.
Denton laughed, “And everyone gets to feed the Tilapia fish. They almost react like the Koi fish at the zoo now where they almost jump out at you.”
She is also proud of the “SET for Life” conference she helps plan. SET stands for Science, Engineering and Technology. During the event, 75-100 different community leaders, including doctors, engineers and university professors, go out to the school and speak with the students about different career paths and how to make positive choices in their lives.
Denton said, “There’s also a 7th and 8th grade science fair going on during the conference, so not only do students learn what’s available in the community, but they also have a chance to present a long-term science project they’ve worked on which is then judged by members of the community.”
Many students tell Denton how they feel more empowered after collaborating because they’ve had the opportunity to work out in the community.
“For the kids, being able to do service learning projects and being able to be out in the community and meet people allows them to see this whole other side to learning that a standardized test just can’t capture,” she said.
Denton has high hopes for future collaborations as well. She said the school has just become partners with Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo and is starting a pilot class called “Introduction to Zoology.”
Right now it’s just for 8th graders but Denton has bigger plans. “My big goal is for us to develop a middle school academy for the zoo. That way, students who are super excited about animal science, conservation efforts or botany could take their courses at the zoo and become immersed in the science.”
She also wants to create a virtual community collaboration for distance learning projects. For example, Denton explained, if she has kids who are excited about whales, they could distance learn with the San Diego Zoo and create a partnership there. Ultimately, she wants her students creating, writing and teaching lessons virtually to other schools around the globe.
“Collaborating gives students the chance to see that science happens everywhere, that excellent writing and presentation skills have to happen everywhere as well. That’s something they can only understand if they are out in the community,” said Denton.