Lettuce patch an innovative tool
By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN
PALCO -- More than once during the past 10 years, David Dryden has made a career change. And a whole lot of students in Palco are reaping the benefits.
Dryden, who received a degree in engineer technology/mechanical from Kansas State University, was farming in the Stockton area approximately nine years ago when a position came open for an industrial arts teacher at Palco High School.
He successfully sought the job and taught woods and computers to both junior high and high school students. Then three years ago, he was asked to make another change.
Now the school's ag education teacher, Dryden received a $500 grant from McDonald's Classroom Grants Program in Hays last year and used the funds to help buy an ebb and flow hydroponic system in which students can observe the processes of plant life cycle -- without the use of soil.
Students planted lettuce in a 4-by-4 foot, 18-inch deep tray with a 40-gallon reservoir below that holds a growing solution.
They keep an eye on the pH levels and make adjustments accordingly.
"I think they can learn more from hands-on activities, real-world applications," said Dryden, who said he appreciated the experience he received in "a good ag ed program" in high school while growing up on a farm near Stockton.
He said students have been excited with the progress.
"I'd never actually grown lettuce before," said sophomore Macy Keller, one of the three students enrolled in the class along with sophomore Cheyenne Schwab and junior Stetson Nyp.
Not only are students in his plant and animal class learning, but so are others.
"Classes not working on it come in to see how it's going," said Dryden, whose students harvest the lettuce every week or so, "depending on the environment."
The project has been so successful the school cooks use the lettuce for snacks and lunches for the students.
They got a bonus when they returned from Christmas break and had to harvest approximately four pounds of lettuce.
Dryden said the cooks prefer the students' lettuce over what is bought at the store.
"It's picked fresh. There isn't transportation time to get it here, so it stores a lot longer," he said.
Students also have experimented with other vegetables, too. The lettuce now shares space with a cucumber plant and a pepper plant. And "there's a soybean in there right now planted by a fifth-grader who germinated a seed in a cotton ball," Dryden said.
Students in the entire school have helped the class in one way or another.
"Once we had an overabundance of one of the nutrients, and we heard about it from the students, that the lettuce was getting bitter," he said.
And, Dryden admitted, "this has all been a learning curve for me, too."
But adapting along the way is something to which Dryden has become accustomed the past several years.
When he first started teaching in 2004, he took certification classes online for three years in what is called "a transition to teaching" program.
"It's like I did three years of student teaching," he said.
Now, Dryden is enjoying teaching students about what he considers one of the most important classes in the curriculum.
"Agriculture is everything," he said. "You can't live without agriculture."