NIU partners with Genoa Elementary School for educational program

GENOA – Gabriel Kleba never had planted anything before, but that didn’t stop him from rolling up his sleeves and getting his shoes muddy as he learned how to garden.

Kleba, a fifth grade student at Genoa Elementary School, was one of about 225 students who participated in a collaboratory program between the school and Northern Illinois University.

In the program, taught by NIU nutrition professor Henna Muzaffar, nine Genoa Elementary School classes, four fourth grades and five fifth grades, learned about nutrition, cooking, botany and gardening.

Muzaffar, the project manager and developer, is an assistant professor in the School of Health Studies at NIU. She had three graduate assistants from the School of Health Studies’ nutrition, dietetics and wellness department: Ashley Werner, Melanie Regan and Ashley Valinskas.

From September through December, Muzaffar and the graduate assistants taught the students about nutrition through cooking activities and following healthy recipes.

“They learned that different food comes from different parts of the plant,” Muzaffar said. “For seeds, they ate trail mix. For roots, they had a beet salad. For leaves, they had a salad with dressing. For fruit, they made fruit pizzas.”

From January through April, the students were taught about the different parts of plants, how to garden and how to grow your own food. In small cups in their classrooms, students grew seven different plants from seeds: basil, tomato, pea, spinach, asparagus, cabbage and sweet peppers.

“The second half of the year, the students learned how to plant seeds and start a garden indoors,” Muzaffar said. “Once the temperature warmed up, they were able to plant what they grew outside.”

On Earth Day, April 22, the students’ seedlings were planted in a garden at the school. In addition to learning how to plant, the students were taught about companion planting: which fruits and vegetables can be planted next to each other and which plants need to be more spaced apart.

Principal John Francis described the classes as “a fun way to get kids interested in science.”

“It’s a way for the students to see a project completed, from beginning to end,” Francis said. “It’s also an opportunity to foster a connection with the university.”

Fifth grade teacher Kaki Johnson said the program taught her students about healthier eating habits and how to grow your own produce.

“We would take a ruler out and see how much the plants would grow,” Johnson said. “From Friday afternoon to Monday morning, the plants really took off. It was great to see them get so excited and interested in something.”

Fifth grade student Hayden McHugh was taught how to plant asparagus in the school’s garden.

“Our whole class grew our plants, and I liked seeing the plants grow,” McHugh said. “I think that gardening is fun.”

Katrina Milton

Katrina J.E. Milton

Award-winning reporter and photographer for Shaw Media publications, including The Daily Chronicle and The MidWeek newspapers in DeKalb County, Illinois, since 2012.