School trip to Central America changes lives

Tennessee high school students give Central American orphans a lasting way to grow food
By: | Issue: January, 2016
December 14, 2015

An engineering project in a Tennessee high school grew into a compassionate mission to build an innovative dome to grow fresh food for a rural Central American orphanage.

The adventure inspired Cleveland City Schools Director Martin Ringstaff to spread a personalized learningÑand project-based approachÑto more of his students.

It started in fall 2014, when Cleveland High School teacher Ben Williams proposed a capstone project to his engineering design and development students. He asked them to turn a 55-gallon aquarium into an aquaponic system to grow plants and fish.

Williams invited CEO Ryan Cox of HATponics, a Chattanooga-based company, to join a panel that would review the students’ project. HATponics creates sustainable agriculture solutions for education and humanitarian aid using hydroponics, aquaponics and terraponics farming methods.

Cox was so impressed with the students’ excitement and designs he challenged them to take over the company’s work to design an aquaponic dome at an orphanage in a remote Nicaraguan village.

Over the 2014-15 school year, the students called local businesses for donations and help with the design.

Cleveland City Schools

Director Martin Ringstaff
Students: 5,428
Demographics: 63% white; 19% Hispanic; 15% African-American; 2% Asian; 1% Native American/Alaskan
Per child expenditure: $9,239
Students on free or reduced-price lunch: 70%
Graduation rate: 86%
Yearly budget: $42 million
Cleveland City Schools website

After completing the dome, 10 students and four adults last June traveled 3,000 miles to NicaraguaÑin a commercial plane, a small plane and a busÑto set up the dome in which the orphanage would grow food.

The 19-foot-diameter and 12-foot-tall dome now sits in remote Miskito village in Kisalaya, Nicaragua.

Local companies donated funds and/or materials, including Worth Construction, which provided metal chassis pieces, hardware and funding for the trip. SolaWRAP, a San Diego company, donated a commercial-grade greenhouse film to cover the dome.

The self-sustaining structure uses mist irrigation for seed growth, a solar-charged serviceable battery, twin filtration fish-breeding containers and water-catchment basins. Kale, turnip greens and collard greens grow inside the dome.

Ringstaff shared the uplifting story during a District Administration Leadership Institute conference, pointing to his desire to bring more personalized learning programs to his schools. He spoke to Managing Editor Angela Pascopella about making that happen.

DA: What did you think when you heard about Ben Williams’ idea for a school trip to a remote village in Nicaragua?

When Mr. Williams brought this to me and the board attorney, going to a Third World country made me a little concerned. You have to think about vaccinations and safety and anything that comes into play.

The parents were concerned and thinking, “You’re putting my children in a potentially dangerous situation,” and the health care there was questionable. Traveling on a bus on the remote dirt roads to get to and from the orphanage became questionable.

But Ben had an answer for everything. And as we move into personalized and project-based learning at the district, this is the type of thing we should be doing more of in school.

We worked diligently with the board of education and we played out all the different potential situations and scenarios. We also worked with the government of Nicaragua. The board of ed was very supportive and we all felt it was a great learning opportunity that most kids would never face anywhere else.

For us, to sponsor that and go to the most remote places of Nicaragua and feed 16 people for years to come, we took a chance. We stuck our necks out.

How was this specifically about personalized learning? Seems to be more project-based.

This project meshed personalized learning, project-based learning and inquiry-based learning. We had students from varied backgrounds and demographics. We assigned project “majors” based on students’ interest level and area of potential post-secondary interest so they could develop real-world experience and community partnerships in specific areas of the project.

We had two students with interest in biomedical and bioengineering. They specialized in the living components of the system (fish and plant species) and made our overall project decisions on biology based on their experience, research and a correspondence with a Chattanooga-licensed general physician and dietitian. They are now studying similar fields in their college engineering programs.

Another student was interested in the structural element of the dome, and was placed in a leadership role on the ground in Nicaragua, where he had to act as site manager over the assembly of the very complicated geodesic dome structure. He was a meek student who didn’t like speaking to a group, but was given a chance to be a true leader by directing his peers.

What was so special about this project?

What I love about this project is that the majority of it was student-based and student-initiated. One student called SolaWrap to ask about getting greenhouse covering for the roof.

And students were driving it. It was not a top-down project but a bottom-up project and that’s what we’re trying to do more of. And when you have 10 kids carrying this dome, in pieces, to a remote village and then building it there, that doesn’t happen without great motivation and great vision. It was a world-changing trip.


When the students got back and presented to the board about what they had learned, I saw a compassion and passion that I’d never seen in kids before. It humbled them to be there with the orphans.

I really believe it will change how they look at the world. And that’s more than powerful. We cannot teach compassion in a classroom.

What is the most difficult challenge for this kind of project?

If we take things that are truly student-based we can get the buy-in. I think we’ll get administrator and parent buy-in. But the hardest part is teacher buy-in. They get so comfortable and wrapped up in their ways. So we know the Horace Mann style of education that we used for 165 years simply is not working for every kid out there, and we have to do something.

The students have to drive that instruction. So we’re going to set up a focus group with students and teachers and set up committees to think outside the box and find ways to see if we can relinquish that control of the traditional classroom and its facilitators. It’s going to be a lot of work. It’s going to test the teachers.

I love change when it is best for kids, and there’s no doubt in my mind that innovation and personalized learning is what’s best for students.

And you plan more class projects?

We want to create a school within a school approach, with leadership classes, career-tech and higher ed classes. Twenty-five percent of students sitting in schools today are at risk and they could disappear. We need to engage students like that so they get excited and they want to learn. We want to facilitate that and complete a personalized learning plan.

I recently visited the Innovative Early College High School in Utah, focused on personalized learning. They are doing great things. There are no class periods. Students take as many classes as they want and they love it. I’m not saying that works everywhere, and we would need to take the best of everything to see if we could make a plan that fits for us.