Financial windfall boosts science education in Portsmouth

More than $600K in grants awarded to various school programs since September

By Jim McGaw
Posted 12/21/21

PORTSMOUTH — The grants are pouring in for science education in Portsmouth, which means more students will be able to keep their hands dirty in soil, use drones to learn about topography and …

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Financial windfall boosts science education in Portsmouth

More than $600K in grants awarded to various school programs since September

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — The grants are pouring in for science education in Portsmouth, which means more students will be able to keep their hands dirty in soil, use drones to learn about topography and better understand stormwater issues.

In late September the school district was awarded a whopper of a grant — $500,000 from the Department of Defense to support K-8 science instruction over the next five years. The award was the result of district science coach Margie Brennan and Assistant Superintendent Elizabeth Viveiros working with the East Bay Educational Collaborative.

“It’s a military grant, so the focus is our military families on Aquidneck Island, not just Portsmouth,” said Brennan. 

So how will the grant be spent? The first goal is to increase science achievements in the schools by training and providing more professional development opportunities to teachers “toward next-generation science teaching,” Brennan said.

“The second part allows us to do more career-readiness programs to expose the kids at the middle school in more environmental opportunities through project-base, authentic learning,” she added.

For example, students in grades 4 and 6 could work with the local nonprofit Clean Ocean Access on various issues facing Aquidneck Island. “We have so many problems with stormwater issues; our bays are polluted and that impacts aquatic life. Everything is tied back to our community,” Brennan said, adding that students could then educate their own families.

The grant will also offer money for field trips to tie into the science curriculum. “If we’re looking at how to reduce the amount of trash at our landfill, we can take a field trip to the landfill and show the kids what that facility does, and what the recycling center looks like,” she said.

There’s also a strong technology component to the grant. “All three schools are getting drones, so we can do drone mapping and look at topography,” she said. “This really broadens our educational system outside of the classroom.”

AgInnovation Farm

Portsmouth AgInnovation Farm, a student-run farm where kids learn about sustainable agriculture with hands-on problem-solving experiences, has also received some significant grants recently.

The farm is a collaboration between Eastern Rhode Island Conservation District (ERICD) and Portsmouth Middle School, and located on land gifted by Martin Beck at CloverBud Ranch, just south of the school on Jepson Lane. The school district plans to hold STEAM education classes, as well as after-school programs at the farm. The vision is for the farm to grow into an island-wide program, servicing all three municipalities and school districts.

Portsmouth AgInnovation now has over 65 kids and 25 families dedicated to learning about regenerative farming practices. Over the summer, the program was able to harvest food for both St. John’s Food and St. Lucy’s Food Pantry. 

ERICD recently received a $64,622 grant from The Champlin Foundation to support the farm, according to Sara Churgin, ERICD’s district manager who wrote the grant.

“The AgInnovation Farm has come such a long way in a short amount of time,” Churgin said. “Born in the midst of the pandemic, the farm offers a perfect outdoor opportunity for kids to learn about sustainable agriculture. This generous grant from the Champlin Foundation allows us to take a big step in providing meaningful agricultural education in a time when it is most crucially needed. It gets us closer to our vision of being a student driven island wide farm education program.”

Meanwhile, the van Beuren Charitable Foundation (vBCF) awarded the Portsmouth School Department a $67,000 grant for the farm, Brennan said.

“Collectively, the two grants are giving us the foundation for the farm,” she said, noting the combined grant awards will be used to provide irrigation and purchase a new tractor with all the attachments, a tractor sherd, and more. Some of the money will also be used to buy and install needed deer fencing, as those rascals ate a lot of the farm’s squash last year, according to Brennan.

“This is a huge step forward for the Portsmouth AgInnovation Farm,” she said. “This money will create the foundation of our program and additional resources will enhance courses such as food to table, soil health, water quality and much more. We cannot thank vBFC enough for this much-needed grant.”

In addition to those grants, Brennan said the district also won a Loraine Tisdale Environmental Education grant of $2,700. Those funds will be put to work at the high school, where science teacher Tyler Angers is leading students on a solar-powered rain irrigation system to support the farm. 

“We have to replace the plastic on the high tunnel now, and we’re doing that in the spring,” she said.

The farm also got a boost recently when the Newport Navy Choristers held a benefit concert Dec. 10 at St. Barnabas Church, with all proceeds going to Portsmouth AgInnovation. According to Brennan, the concert raised about $8,000 for the program. 

“We’re just amazed that people are really starting to pick up on the farm. I can’t wait until May; it’s going to be really exciting,” she said.

Community support

She’s grateful for the support of many in the community, including Martin Beck who’s been a booster from the start, and Jeff Gambrell of Gambrell Landscaping, who’s mowed the area about eight times at no charge.

“His son goes to the middle school and isn’t even part of the program, but right from the start he was a big advocate for us. He didn’t even ask for gas money,” Brennan said.

She also couldn’t do it without Portsmouth Middle School Principal Joao Arruda, Jurgin, and Claire Nelson, who handles marketing for Portsmouth AgInnovation. “We’re starting to build a strong team, which is exactly what we need for this to happen,” she said.

For more information about the Portsmouth AgInnovation Farm, check out the farm’s Facebook page, Portsmouth AgInnovation, visit easternriconservation.org/aginnovation-farm, or contact Margie Brennan at brennanm2@portsmouthschoolsri.org. For more information about The Eastern Rhode Island Conservation District, visit easternriconservation.org/aginnovation-farm or contact Sara Churgin at schurgin.ericd@gmail.com or 401/225-6033.

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