Life Science

Vermicomposting

I recently presented a session at a conference about using worms and vermicomposting as the medium for inquiry and experimental design. Worms allow students to observe various animal behaviors without the problems of potential escape, allergies, and expense. Because the multiply relatively rapidly, students are able to observe the animals in various stages at any time. I received lots of questions about vermicomposting on a school-wide scale. Last year, we had a small-scale test, but nothing on the scale of recycling cafeteria waste. This has become a popular recycling project at some schools, and I am wondering if any of you have had any experiences for me to pass along. A lot of schools pass on this concept because of the perception that the worms are dirty or smelly, so I would be interested in how those preconceptions were overcome. How are you using worms in your classroom?

Jennifer Rahn
Jennifer Rahn
67935 Activity Points

Through our chats, you have really "sold" me on the use of worms in the science classroom, and other teachers are using them too. Checkout these online resources for activities using worms: http://www.proteacher.com/cgi-bin/outsidesite.cgi?id=5319&external=http://yucky.kids.discovery.com/teachercenter/pg000066.htm&original=http://www.proteacher.com/110067.shtml&title=Worm%20World

Therese Houghton
Therese Houghton
7210 Activity Points

There is a website for upper elementary school age children that teaches them to build worm bins and discusses the ways to make sure that they are not smelly or dirty based upon what the worms are fed. It is called Squirmin' Herman and the site is http://urbanext.illinois.edu/worms/neighborhood/index.html Also, there are several universities who are embracing green facilities who may have information about worm bins although at least one that I know of uses a large scale composter for cafeteria waste. Keep in mind that the waste still must be sorted and use of compostable items/wrapping makes the process more efficient. The University of North Carolina in Asheville and Warren Wilson College, also in Asheville, NC, are both green universities. Their websites may provide a model about how to present green behaviors and technologies to administrative bodies.

Bambi Bailey
Bambi Bailey
9515 Activity Points

I have used the Squirmin' Herman site as well. Fun and very understandable, especially for younger (grades 3-6) students. One book that I use to get kids hooked, especially in informal situations is Gary Paulson's cartoon book "There's a Hair in My Dirt." Probably not appropriate below grade 7, the book amusingly presents lessons about environmental processes. I appreciate the information on schools that are doing composting of organic waste. It is challenging in a school setting to make certain only appropriate types of waste get into the compost, and that is one of the issues. Odor can be an issue. In Wisconsin, where this morning it is a balmy 22 F, the composting worms must be kept indoors in order to do their job, at least if red worms are used. I have helped set up a couple small school installations, but I am interested in looking at how some of the larger installations do the job. Thanks for the input so far.

Jennifer Rahn
Jennifer Rahn
67935 Activity Points

Hello Colleagues,
While reading your posts on Vermicomposting I was reminded of Laptop Learning Challenge, a contest that is sponsored by Toshiba/NSTA. A recent winner, Mary Ellen Krisko from Worland, Wyoming, wrote the lesson plan Worm Weather Predicted.

This life science activity investigates the behavior of earthworms. In the cooperative-learning laboratory students measure the physical activity of earthworms using a motion sensor under controlled temperatures to simulate seasonal differences in the environment. Mary Ellen's idea is unique and creative, I can see why she was chosen a winner.

Visit http://www.nsta.org/publications/interactive/laptop/lessons/m2.htm on our NSTA site to read Worm Weather Predicted and download the pdf files.

Does anyone else have ideas to share involving their earthworm study?

Alyce

Alyce Dalzell
Alyce Dalzell
64075 Activity Points

Alyce,
Great resources. I have been looking at both redworms and earthworms. Typically the redworms are a little more tolerant within the classroom environment. Earthworms tend to prefer the colder temperatures of soil, and are typically found deeper than redworms, which are composting worms, normally found in the top 6 inches or so of soil detritus. The preferences of the species makes for some interesting comparative studies. Professional Recyclers of Pennsylvania has assembled a set of vermicomposting lesson plans that contain some interesting approaches to studying redworms. I'm sure there are similar types of inquiries that can be used with earthworms as well.

Jennifer Rahn
Jennifer Rahn
67935 Activity Points

I am also a Master Gardener in Illinois and U of I has an extensions that deals with all your gardening needs. http://web.extension.illinois.edu/state/hort15.html Here is the link from their site on composting; you can also use newspaper as a medium for the compost. Get a compost bin for the cafeteria-ask for donations from Donors Choose for a couple of them to use for the cafeteria food. Great Idea for going green!!

Jacqueline DiLorenzo
Jacqueline DiLorenzo
430 Activity Points

I am also a Master Gardener in Illinois and U of I has an extensions that deals with all your gardening needs. http://web.extension.illinois.edu/state/hort15.html Here is the link from their site on composting; you can also use newspaper as a medium for the compost. Get a compost bin for the cafeteria-ask for donations from Donors Choose for a couple of them to use for the cafeteria food. Great Idea for going green!!

Jacqueline DiLorenzo
Jacqueline DiLorenzo
430 Activity Points

I am also a Master Gardener in Illinois and U of I has an extensions that deals with all your gardening needs. http://web.extension.illinois.edu/state/hort15.html Here is the link from their site on composting; you can also use newspaper as a medium for the compost. Get a compost bin for the cafeteria-ask for donations from Donors Choose for a couple of them to use for the cafeteria food. Great Idea for going green!!

Jacqueline DiLorenzo
Jacqueline DiLorenzo
430 Activity Points

I recently discovered an independent film, "DIRT", and its complementary website. I'm not aware of a film like this and plan on viewing it. The documentary has a links to composting and classroom ideas! Check out the summary and visit the links by going to: http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/dirt-the-movie/film.html Enjoy your day! Alyce

Alyce Dalzell
Alyce Dalzell
64075 Activity Points

Hi Alyce, I had heard of this. If you have access to Netflix, it is available for instant viewing.

Jennifer Rahn
Jennifer Rahn
67935 Activity Points

Hi Jennifer and Everyone,
I found this article in The Learning Center about worms:
The Dirt on Worms
It isn't about composting, but it has a lot of resources listed at the end of the article that might be worth investigating. For example, it mentions this resource:
Potential Cross-Curricular Applications of a Worm Bin for
the Elementary School
www.cfe.cornell.edu/compost/worms/curriculum.html
Carolyn

Carolyn Mohr
Carolyn Mohr
86463 Activity Points

Thanks Carolyn. I have visited this site as well, and it has a wealth of information about worms and their habits. As far as the movie Dirt! is concerned, I found it interesting but cursory in its treatment of soil.They make many important points, but it may be better targeted as a social science activity, or at least be used in conjunction with a social studies or geography context. The other thing that I took issue with was the use of the term "dirt" instead of "soil." Dirt is used to romanticize soil, and gives it more of a universal appeal. But soil is not dirt, but a collection of organic and inorganic components.As one who has studied soils to some extent, the composition and categorization of soil is critical to life on earth, and our existence is made possible by the thin mantle of those components that allow vegetation and other biota to exist. Dirt is generic, and I really want my students to understand the difference between the two. Perhaps it is a fine point, but I am somewhat of a stickler for vocabulary.

Jennifer Rahn
Jennifer Rahn
67935 Activity Points

Jennifer wrote, "A lot of schools pass on this concept because of the perception that the worms are dirty or smelly, so I would be interested in how those preconceptions were overcome." I have a container that is especially designed for growing worms. It was left by a previous teacher. I have not used it in the past because I didn't know where to start. Thank you for beginning this thread because it gives me an idea where I should start. Since you have done this in the past, on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being rotting meat and 10 being a dozen roses. How smelly will this be?

Ruth Hutson
Ruth Hutson
63530 Activity Points

This will be smelly and should be done in an outdoor location in a closed container with vents. It will be about an 8 on the scale of smelliness.

Elaine Smith
Elaine Smith
30 Activity Points

Elaine wrote, "This will be smelly and should be done in an outdoor location in a closed container with vents. It will be about an 8 on the scale of smelliness." Thank you, Elaine. I have the closed container. I will find an alternative location, instead of my classroom. :)

Ruth Hutson
Ruth Hutson
63530 Activity Points

Ruth, I have had no particular problems with odor. There are a couple of caveats however. First, make certain that only vegetable contents be added to the compost, and no meat or milk products whatever. Second, be sure that you are using liberal amounts of bedding, and make certain the food is buried in the bedding. This helps the amount of odor escaping from the bins. Another thing that may be a problem if you are having odors is that the compost may be anaerobic. This can be caused by insufficient drainage in your bin, inadequate amounts of bedding (shredded paper or other "brown" material), excessive amounts of food (figure about two pounds of food per pound of redworms per week), or a lack of air holes in the sides and top of bins. I don't know what type of bins you are using; I took the budget approach, and have three inexpensive plastic bins from the local big box store. I drilled about 10 holes in the bottom, same on the top, and 4-5 on each side within a couple inches of the top. You need a pan to catch the worm "tea" which makes fantastic fertilizer (be sure to add a similar amount of water). The bins have the smell of rich, damp soil. The only real issue that I encountered was fruit flies this summer. I took the bins outside for a few days and placed them in a shady place, and most of the flies escaped. The balance were eliminated by using a vinegar trap. A properly functioning vermicomposting bin should never have a bad aroma. Mine has an odor that is probably 8 on a scale of 10 (not anything like rotting meat, and a lot like "worm smell" on a warm rainy day), and I had them in my basement last winter when the temperatures dropped below 40 F in the garage. I also kept a bin in the classroom for about five months, and only when the bedding decomposed did the odor become annoying. The students found them very interesting. This is of course the basis of a great inquiry experiment in animal behavior. What experiences have others had?

Jennifer Rahn
Jennifer Rahn
67935 Activity Points

A site that may provide some insight into smelly bins is at WormWoman.com. Mary Appelhof has also written a couple of books about vermicomposting for classroom use, Worms Eat My Garbage: How to Set Up and Maintain a Worm Composting System and Worms Eat Our Garbage: Classroom Activities for a Better Environment . I have used both as an informal educator, and have found both to be excellent resources.

Jennifer Rahn
Jennifer Rahn
67935 Activity Points

I've been working on a two week unit in my science education class and thought decomposition would be an interesting topic to explore. Thanks for these great resources! I thought about doing compost logs using plastic bottles but was not quite sure how to do it. It was informative and taught me a lot about vermicomposting. I thought it would also be a god idea for students to see the decomposition process of fruit over time, and how they change in weight, texture, color, etc. A great read from the learning center gives some good resources for decomposition, but talks more about the role of slugs and rolypolies. http://static.nsta.org/files/sc0407_14.pdf

Christina Hong
Christina Hong
1110 Activity Points

Hi Jennifer, I have had a worm bin in my classroom in the past and never had a problem with odor. I did have fruit flies on time; you really have to watch what the kids are putting in the bin.

Patty McGinnis
Patricia McGinnis
25580 Activity Points

Hi Jennifer and Patty, Thank you so much for the insight and resources. I am looking forward to trying this project with my biology classes.

Ruth Hutson
Ruth Hutson
63530 Activity Points

I had a large wooden worm box in my middle school classroom many years ago. It was a great addition to the life science classes I taught and never was an odor or fly problem. We used half the box for the worm bed (red worms) which started with shredded newspaper. The students added fruit and vegetable scraps and buried them completely rotating the spot they buried new offerings. If you completely cover the new vegetable matter each time you will prevent the flies and odor. Meat, dairy and flour products are forbidden as they will cause odor and the breads and pasta will promote fungus which will kill your worms. As others have mentioned; there are are great resources on line. I had a couple of small books on worms for my information and attended a vermiculture workshop in my county. You can also use a plastic box with hole. Don't be surprised if you have a few escapees! Later, in a high school at risk biology class in a different district, I had students build their own vermiculture chamber using a 2 liter soda bottle. Each student decided what to put into their chamber and recorded everything that went in. (Today we would probably use a digital camera to "see" the before and after.) Everyone started with some newspaper and were forbidden to use the animal and flour products. Other than that they made the decision as to how many worms to put in and what other things they were going to include. We let them set for 6-8 weeks making sure there was plenty of moisture in each bottle. The culmination of the project was dumping the bottles onto newspaper outside to collect data. The students were excited as they looked for items they had put into the bottle. Some things were still there while others had disappeared and most had lots more worms than when they started. I haven't done this for years but writing about it reminds me of what a good project it is. It takes very little time and has a big impact on student learning.

Kay Gamble
Kay Gamble
735 Activity Points

Kay, That is a great idea. Some of my kids last year did a similar activity, but used it as an opportunity to design experimental controls. They created several scenarios, using different worm species and different foods. Periodically they would assess what the worms were eating. Did you use soda bottles? How did you keep the light out? Did you add drainage and aeration holes? Worms are great to use for behavioral experimentation, and the price is right on them. I have three overflowing bins, and I keep giving them away. They are relatively tolerant of temperature, and don't need a lot of care. I am surprised you had problems with bread; mine get bread, but no animal products.

Jennifer Rahn
Jennifer Rahn
67935 Activity Points

I am really impressed how many of you have kept worm boxes in your classroom. What a fantastic way to expose students to environmental stewardship and decomposition. Thank you for recommending Dirt, I certainly will Netflix it soon.

Angie Fairweather
Angelika Fairweather
12135 Activity Points

I teach kindergarten and we started a garden this year which also led to us learning about worms. A great book that we used was "Wonderful Worms" by Linda Glaser. The children loved learning about how important worms and how they help gardens grow. We didn't have enough money this year to get a worm hangout but we are looking forward to purchasing one for next year. We would also like to work with the cafeteria to introduce the children to composting. Thank you for all of the lesson ideas and resources.

Jana Fukada
Jana Fukada
180 Activity Points

Jana, A vermicomposting bin does not need to be expensive. I purchased bins at the local big box store for about $3 each - now I see them at about $5, but still pretty inexpensive. Not-too-deep plastic storage boxes work great. Just be sure to drill aeration and drainage holes in the top, sides, and bottom of the box. I have looked at those fancy vermicomposters with the bells and whistles, but came to the conclusion that the worms did just fine in the cheap habitats! Jennifer Rahn

Jennifer Rahn
Jennifer Rahn
67935 Activity Points

Thanks to everyone who's posted. I did hydroponics gardening in my urban classroom and always wanted to add vermicomposting but never got up the nerve. I'm looking for an inexpensive way to do this in a small space (very small space). Not a lot of earth in the inner city. All ideas, suggestions, resources, etc would be appreciated! Thanks! Kendra

Kendra Young
Kendra Young
17180 Activity Points

Hi Kendra,
Composting does not need to take up much space - in fact, you don't even need any ground. Successful vermicomposting can be accomplished in a small bin underneath a kitchen sink! There are many commercial products available, but I am firmly in the do-it-yourself camp. I would check for a smaller plastic box, about 12x15x6 inches. You will probably need to tend to the worms a little more frequently, but a box of that size, with about 500 worms or so, should be good to compost about a pound of kitchen waste per week. Not a huge amount, but you will generate a nice amount of compost for houseplants.

Two of my favorite sources of information about urban composting are City Farmer at http://www.cityfarmer.org/wormcomp61.html#wormcompost and EPA's composting site at http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/rrr/composting/vermi.htm, which has a number of citations for additional information.

Jennifer Rahn
Jennifer Rahn
67935 Activity Points

Wow! What a great idea. I like the idea of having the worm bins in class, not only can it be incorporated into an inquiry activity it could also be used to address many of the concepts in ecology. Populations, cycles, and sustainability are some areas that I can think of just off the top of my head which can be addressed. The site about Herman the worm seems very helpful and child friendly. I am very interested in this thread and will definitely explore more on my own and try it out this summer.

Travis Toriano
Travis Toriano
990 Activity Points

Jennifer, let me say that this forum has great longevity. Perhaps you could answer a longstanding question that I have had, is someone who raises worms a farmer or a rancher? With the emphasis on sustainability and recycling, a worm bin in the classroom seems to fit on many levels, from biology to ecology to social reponsibility. I have young kids and they love to find worms. This discussion makes me realize that I had better get 2 worm bins, one for the classroom and one for my home. Thanks for the inspiration and for the lesson ideas and links.

Vincent Lowery
Vincent Lowery
2750 Activity Points

I know a colleague of mine had worms in a bin and did feed it waste from the cafeteria. This however is the only example that I know of this happening at a school. My second graders went on a field trip to the Hawaii Nature Center and came back with the terrarium that included worms in it. They learned that worms ate the dead matter and turned it into rich soil. I wanted to expand this learning into observing the worms on a larger scale but didn't know where to find worms. Anyone have any ideas?

Rachel Nieto
Rachel Nieto
530 Activity Points

This sounds like something very possible to do in Biology class. I know we have composting worms at our agricultural school farm and I could get some from there to start off with. I think I will try to incorporate them into my compost bin at home also because it is not breaking down as fast as I thought it would. Do I have to have the worm bins in the dark all the time or will they survive if they are in an open compost bin? The worms will also come in handy for topics like ecology like Travis was listing, and if we ever reach invertebrates as a topic one of these years. I did invertebrates in Marine Science and I guess we could test annelid behavior using these as a substitute for marine worms. There are so many possibilities!

Tina Alcain
Tina Alcain
3305 Activity Points

This sounds like something very possible to do in Biology class. I know we have composting worms at our agricultural school farm and I could get some from there to start off with. I think I will try to incorporate them into my compost bin at home also because it is not breaking down as fast as I thought it would. Do I have to have the worm bins in the dark all the time or will they survive if they are in an open compost bin? The worms will also come in handy for topics like ecology like Travis was listing, and if we ever reach invertebrates as a topic one of these years. I did invertebrates in Marine Science and I guess we could test annelid behavior using these as a substitute for marine worms. There are so many possibilities!

Tina Alcain
Tina Alcain
3305 Activity Points

HI, Just wondering if anyone answered Rachel's question about the where to find the worms, as I am looking for worms too. Don't want to buy from the worm lady, way too expensive, don't have enough money, and i'd rather the money go to another school.

Colby Kagawa
Colby Kagawa
490 Activity Points

Well, I bought mine from a local non-profit that raises the worms in a compost heap in their greenhouse, and supplies produce to local schools. Unless you live in Milwaukee, however, Growing Power probably is not an option. But you might check out organizations in your community that are involved with sustainable / urban agriculture. You might also put out a call to parents and other teachers who do vermicomposting - it's not just us former hippies who grow worms any more! Check with local environmental groups and clubs, and nature centers, because they also are good sources of information. Personally, I have started several new compost bins from the first worms I bought several years ago.

If you absolutely cannot find any red wiggler worms in your area, you may need to go the commercial route. Sometimes local bait shops stock them, but they tend to be pretty expensive. You could also try the mail-order approach - there are many places that sell worms on the internet. One of these is Uncle Jim's Worm Farm at http://www.unclejimswormfarm.com/. I can't vouch for them, but they have been featured on Oprah and in the Wall Street Journal. They usually run about $30 plus shipping for about 2000 worms, which will set up a good-sized vermicomposting bin. I have heard positive remarks about the quality, but again, I would try to find them locally.

Hope that helps in your search for worms!

Jennifer Rahn
Jennifer Rahn
67935 Activity Points

Tina, Red wiggler worms used in composting prefer the dark. You do not have to keep the worms in the dark, but keep them in a large enough bin so they can seek the dark. You will not see them come to the surface to eat, so keep their food well covered if you do not have a covered bin. Another issue that you might consider with an open bin is that the worms prefer their environment to be damp, and keeping the lid on helps to retain water. I built a couple of "worm farms" that are similar to ant farms that I use for demonstration purposes. I keep them in a dark bag until the presentation - but they disappear in an instant once they are in the light. If you want to be able watch the worms, you might consider testing different light sources (hint: red) to see if worms can tolerate some wavelengths better than others. I have not tried UV, but that might make for an interesting experiment.

Jennifer Rahn
Jennifer Rahn
67935 Activity Points

At our school we have a teacher that is working on a “worm project” with his students. They use basic box bins to make vermicast and compose tea. I’m far from a work expert but I do get to see his students maintaining their worm bins and planting and growing tomatoes. They seem to really enjoy this hands-on experience. His students got to make pizzas in school with the tomatoes they grew. As a community service project they distributed the worm tea for donations and raised money for a local nursing home. I'm not exactly sure how this project is funded possibly a grant or the school has invested in it. Good Luck with the wormy ideas! Dawn http://www.hawaiibusiness.com/Hawaii-Business/October-2007/The-Worm-Lady/ Article on Mindy Jaffe (local “worm lady”) This lady is pretty cool. She comes to our school to do presentations on the worms with the student. For more information on box bin materials and prices (Hawaii) check out http://www.kokuaworms.com/KW3a-systems.html

Dawn Nishimoto
Dawn Nishimoto
3015 Activity Points

That is awesome that she comes to spread the word! Even better is that she has so many schools interested in taking the time to incorporate vermicomposting activities into the curriculum. I have presented at a couple of state conferences and worked with a couple schools, and the reactions vary from "ewww, you've got to be kidding" to "wow, that's really cool," but even the skeptics are curious. Kudos to you for inviting her into your school. As far as worms go, I would definitely recommend local if they are available! Once you get your worm farm going, you should have plenty to share. Start small if you need to, but get started!

Jennifer Rahn
Jennifer Rahn
67935 Activity Points

I have two worm bins in my middle school classroom. I have had them for about four years, and I haven't had to ever purchase more worms. I was able to get both bins through two different grants. Like Jennifer said, it's very possible to construct your own; I was in to saving some time. I like the bin that I have from Flinn better than the one that I have from Carolina, but I think they both do fine. I very rarely have an odor problem, but some of the kids do say they stink. I think that is more of a function that they don't have a lot of experience with nature. These are the same students that make remarks if we use vinegar or light candles, etc. during science. You can't always win them all over! I would say the biggest thing with the bins is the harvesting. I take the bins home with me during breaks and I harvest them when needed; ideally about 3-4 months (but I have gone a bit longer than that if time is short). This past year I had students help with some of the harvesting and re-bedding because I thought that it would make it a more authentic process for them. I do have problems with fruit flies at times. I do make sure that the food is buried, but they still can at least smell the scents. This can be problematic at times, but I usually get it taken care of fairly soon. My goal is to increase what we do with the bins each year, and I would eventually like to tie something into the school level. However, I am concerned with the bulk of food. I think that would mean a lot of worm bins and a lot of maintenance. In that case, I think it might be better to just go the rotated garbage bin route. I am too interested in hearing from anybody that has had success on a larger scale (and particularly if you use vermicomposting).

Anne Friederich
Anne Friederich
2460 Activity Points

Anne, I have had decent success using fruit fly traps to reduce the number of flies. I use glass bottles about half liter to wine bottle size, put in half a cup vinegar, then place a paper funnel point into the bottle, tip cut off. Tape into place, and you will have fruit fly soup in no time at all! You probably will need to change the vinegar periodically, but it greatly reduces the number of fruit flies.

Jennifer Rahn
Jennifer Rahn
67935 Activity Points

Hi Jennifer. I went to a workshop one time and attended a presentation on vermiculture in which they used redworms, a plastic tub and shredded newspapers. I did this activity in my classroom with a little twist. We had an insulated five gallon water container that was being thrown out and I converted it to my vermiculture bin. I started out with newspaper shredding but quickly turned to decayed leaves that were left over from my Leafpack activity with macroinvertebrates. That evolved into a Trout in the Classroom activity and a classroom garden, which has evolved into a full size greenhouse my school is buying and installing at my school this coming spring. Guess what? These critters grow more than worm tea - they grow interactive programs, too!

James Johnson
James Johnson
95308 Activity Points

At our school we have an ecology club that has used worms to create composting. Each grade level has a bin. After several months we put the compost into our garden outside. It's great for the kids to see the whole process.

Stacia Brown
Stacia Brown
560 Activity Points

Hi Stacia! We are using the worm tea in my classroom to water and feed starter plants in our classroom indoor greenhouse which will be planted outside in the spring, if it ever comes! Our school is planning to construct a greenhouse to expand the project. All from some red wrigglers! Thanks for your comments!

James Johnson
James Johnson
95308 Activity Points

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