AUDUBON — In January, when winter was cementing its icy hold on the region, Kathrina O'Connell's sixth graders at Lake Park Audubon Elementary School started pushing back, just a little bit.
They planted lettuce and basil seeds as part of a new hydroponic growing station that O'Connell set up with help from a grant from the Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom project, a program made possible by a partnership between the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the MAITC Foundation.
Once seedlings were large enough, O'Connell's students transferred them to the hydroponics station, which involves suspending plants above a source of water enriched with nutrients and letting the roots grow into the water.
O'Connell said the pace of that growth has been swift, something she said has made coming to class exciting for her students.
And the students agree.
"It's fun to come in every day and to see the progress and how it's growing," Kylie Isaman said.
Fellow student Zane Sherman chimed in, "I think it's cool because you can grow plants in winter."
It is O'Connell's first winter teaching hydroponics using the new station, so she said she is learning alongside her students.
"It's really quite remarkable," she said, adding that her students are eager for when the lettuce, in particular, can be harvested.
"They are looking forward to a salad party when the lettuce grows enough (that) we can harvest it," O'Connell said. "They're going to bring in their different dressings and supplement that with cucumbers and tomatoes and whatever produce students want to bring in. They're really, really excited for that," she added.
In addition to hydroponics, O'Connell said the elementary school has an outdoor greenhouse where students will start planting around early March, with an eye toward having plants ready for a public sale sometime in May.
By using the hydroponics station, O'Connell said, "We're extending that (traditional) learning by looking at a different way of growing things."
Because the hydroponics program is so new, O'Connell is unsure when harvest time will arrive, but she doesn't think it will be too long.
"I would think by March we'll be having a salad party," she said.