If it’s 1 p.m. at Cannon River STEM School, there's only one thing the school's naturalist, Stephanie Rathsack, could possibly be doing — composting.
It’s a daily responsibility for Rathsack, but for the two lucky third-graders scheduled to help that day, it's a rare opportunity.
Third-graders Hayleigh Churchill and William Silver helped Rathsack compost on a Tuesday afternoon in November. Both students agreed composting is fun, but apart from that, they understand its purpose.
Churchill said her school composts “so people can make stuff out of the stuff we don’t use.”
Added Silver: “It’s to keep the earth healthy.”
First, Rathsack and the two third-graders weigh the compost bins in the cafeteria. The bins are full of compostables like banana peels, apple cores, bread and broccoli from the day’s lunch. Typically, she said two bins weigh a combined 90 pounds. According to Rathsack, the school keeps 8,000 pounds of "garbage" out of the landfill a year by composting.
Rathsack leads Churchill and Silver from the cafeteria to the school’s compost bin, where they take turns helping her dump the materials into the tub of leaves. The green compost bags, made from plants, also go into the compost bin. She explains to the students the brown leaves contain a lot of carbon while green materials have more nitrogen. Together, Rathsack and the third-graders use shovels to chop up the large chunks of food so it composts better. The three then cover the materials with more leaves from a neighboring bin.
Every step of the way, Rathsack quizzes Churchill and Silver on what they remember from previous lessons about composting. Each third-grader gets four to five turns to help compost during the school year, so after a while the process becomes familiar. And since the composting became available on the campus three years ago, students in the upper grades have the same experience under their belts.
"I hope they can take that [experience] with them, bring it home and to other schools," said Rathsack.
An unmet need
While employed as a naturalist through River Bend Nature Center a couple years ago, Rathsack noticed Faribault lacked composting options. At the time, she lived in the metro area where compost curbside pickup had become more common. She visited local waste management plants and conducted research, hoping to find a solution.
Partnering with Cannon River Stem School, Rathsack realized some of the teachers at the school also wanted to see composting available on the school’s campus. Third-grade teachers even helped their students write proposals to present to the Faribault City Council and also delivered presentations before the School Board and the former CRSS executive director, Nalani McCutcheon.
Rathsack said McCutcheon, the founder of CRSS, played a huge role in getting the campus compost rolling three years ago. Later, it was McCutcheon who met with current CRSS Executive Director Cheryl Wendt and the former curriculum specialist to decide how a full-time naturalist position would operate at the school.
“We used to partner with River Bend Nature Center and shared a naturalist,” said Wendt. “We realized if we had our own full-time naturalist, we could really do more projects and offer more classes.”
The CRSS compost started before Wendt assumed the executive director's job, but she’s witnessed Rathsack improve the process by teaching children why composting is important, how it’s done, and what repercussions occur without composting.
Wendt said the full-time naturalist position in general allows for the school to fully implement projects and lessons teachers can’t otherwise squeeze into their busy schedules. Rathsack’s position, she said, gives the CRSS campus more opportunities to help the environment as well as the students.
“She’s just a real go-getter,” said Wendt. “I would hope anyone else we would have hired would have had that same passion.”
A natural fit
Growing up in Spring Lake Park, Rathsack remembers hiding snake skins in her sock drawer. At 10, she preferred volunteering at the Springbrook Nature Center to watching cartoons on Saturday mornings.
It should come as no surprise that Rathsack decided to major in fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. She initially saw herself in the pre-veterinary field until she realized she wanted to keep doing what she’d always done at the nature center. As she became more aware of the field's diverse career options, she took the path of becoming a naturalist.
Before becoming the first full-time naturalist at CRSS, the River Bend Nature Center brought her to Faribault. Her naturalist position at River Bend involved interactions with Cannon River students, but now the school campus is more central to her work.
“This is really different because I have the same kids to teach, which you don’t usually get as a naturalist,” said Rathsack. “I get to see what they learn from year to year. They’re going to change the world!”
Much of Rathsack’s work involves composting with third-graders, but apart from that daily responsibility, she introduces different topics in nature and environmental sciences to each grade at CRSS. She doesn’t consider herself a “classroom teacher,” and she likes teaching more than one grade all year long, so the informal and often outdoor setting is ideal for Rathsack’s agenda.
As for her students, Rathsack said, “I know I’m jealous. We never went outside for school, except for recess.”
Going along with her composting lesson, Rathsack helps students sort their uneaten food into the proper bins in the lunchroom. This helps students as young as kindergarten understand the difference between compost materials and trash.
Each grade level looks forward to learning something new from Rathsack as students emerge from one grade to the next. She helps kindergartners fill the bird feeders and first-graders tag butterflies to track the migration of monarchs. She supervises second-graders as they check every recycling bin in the school and third-graders tap trees on the school campus to collect maple syrup for a pancake party. After acquiring the proper suits and equipment, she’ll give eighth-graders a lesson in beekeeping.
Rathsack said she also likes to keep an open schedule so she’s available to go on hikes with students and inspect any frogs, bugs or other animals they might find on the campus.
Outside the regular school schedule, Rathsack started a STEM School camp last summer, which she plans to continue next year. This was an additional chance for students to catch worms and bugs and set up a trail camera for observing raccoons.
Madi Cooper, fourth-grade teacher at CRSS, called Rathsack “an invaluable resource” at the school.
“My students love Ms. Stephanie, and whenever they find something cool outside, we have to radio for Ms. Stephanie or send her a picture so she can tell us more about it,” said Cooper. “She’s like the human version of Google for anything natural or outside. She has an incredible wealth of knowledge, and my students love learning from her.”
What's in the water?
The big project Rathsack supervises for fourth-graders is water testing at the Straight River, a CRSS project that predates her position. Each week Thursday, Rathsack walks a group of four students from CRSS to the 14th Street NE bridge. Students grab ahold of a long rope with a bucket tied at the end, and with Rathsack’s help, lower it into the flowing river below them. After acquiring enough water, they reel up the bucket and transfer the water to a large jar.
While out of the classroom, Rathsack also encourages students to make hydrologist observations of the river’s color and height. She asks them which elements of nature might contribute to the water’s green or gray hues - algae and the sky. She also quizzes them on how to tell if the river is low or high, and they know the answer based on whether or not the roots of the nearby trees are above or below the water’s surface.
Rathsack shows students how to test the water outdoors when it’s warm outside. In the colder months students complete their observations back at school. They test the water for nitrogen and phosphates by first adding chemicals to the water turn it different colors. After dipping test tubes into the water samples, they compare the colors to those on pH indicator strips to determine the number of parts per million (ppm) of nitrates and phosphates in the water. Rathsack helps students fill out a sheet so they can report their findings to the Minnesota Department of Health.
“They love it because the water changes colors and they get to wear goggles,” said Rathsack.
For the final water test, Rathsack fills a long, transparent tube with the water to test its turbidity, or cloudiness. Each student peers into the tube one at a time to see if a circular symbol on the bottom is visible. As Rathsack uses a string to pull that image higher, the student at the tube tells her if the symbol has become clear.
On a Thursday afternoon in November, fourth-grader Adeline Piper was among the four students who helped Rathsack with water-testing. She said the most interesting part was “probably how clean [the water] is.”
“I kind of expected it to be dirty,” said Piper. “I liked putting the chemicals in [to test the water].”
Fourth-graders have other opportunities to learn from Rathsack throughout the year. Fourth-grade teacher Sheila Sawyer said her students classify rocks and minerals using dichotomy charts with Rathsack and also learn which types of Minnesota species to plant and maintain and which seeds to harvest and prepare for next year.
“Stephanie is an important part of our school,” said Sawyer. “Her knowledge and experience is extremely valuable for the experience for our students.”