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Lacombe Composite High School (LCHS) in Alberta has a remarkable EcoVision Club that is inspiring and empowering students to become ecological leaders. The club runs student-led projects that are working to improve the quality of the air, land and water and that demonstrate a really strong model of farm to school in action. 

All of the club’s projects focus on three pillars: (1) the environment, (2) education, and (3) the community. 

So what sorts of projects does EcoVision work on? Their five goals give a summary:

  1. Develop an outdoor classroom, garden and edible forest
  2. Maintain our composting, solar, recycling & greenhouse projects
  3. Enhance our community greenhouse and permaculture area
  4. Promote awareness and educate individuals about our projects and environmental issues
  5. Partner with the community and other school groups to encourage environmental actions such as recycling, gardening, & beautification

At the heart of EcoVision’s mandate is student leadership and involvement. Students are a part of the club’s projects every step of the way. From the birth of a project to its finish, it’s all run by students. They are doing everything from helping to build garden beds and grow food, to research, running their website, accounting, and grant writing.

Since 2006, the club has installed a solar system on the school’s roof, built and maintained compost systems, set up a beekeeping program, built a geothermal greenhouse, and added an aquaponics system to the greenhouse. The students also oversee recycling programs, run awareness campaigns like garbage-free February, and lead ongoing activities such as growing plants (for their cafeteria or for fundraising), giving tours of their facilities, and developing communications materials.

Check out this video to learn more about the greenhouse and see it being built! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5M8wx78v20I

One of the club’s largest projects was the building of a new state-of-the-art greenhouse in 2012, which came about thanks to collaboration with a number of community partners. The club’s goal is to grow all of the produce they need for their cafeteria and to share any leftovers with the community.

Through their hands-on learning projects, EcoVision students are graduating high school with invaluable life skills and direct project experience, combined with a deep understanding of the circular nature of our environments. They also know how to grow their own food!

The club is run by teacher Steve Schultz, EcoVision Advisor. Steve has previously been selected as Lacombe Citizen of the Year, and has received a Prime Minister’s Excellence in Teaching Award. You can hear his passion for environmental learning, as well as the students’, in a series of videos on the club’s website. Their website also provides a list of environmental resources, gardening resources, and grants!

Q&A

How does LCHS make it happen, and what tips does the EcoVision club have for other school communities? Find more details below in our Q&A with Steve Schultz (SS), and hear directly from students in some great video clips:

Can you tell us a bit more about your school and community?

SS: Lacombe Composite High School is in a small town located in central Alberta, halfway between Edmonton and Calgary. The school has about 850 students. About 10-20 students are in the club. 

Check out this video to hear why Lacombe is one of the greenest schools in Canada!

The main goal of the EcoVision club is to reduce our ecological footprint. Through its everyday activities, the club has really helped ingrain an environmentally-friendly attitude across our whole school community, which has really spread into the broader community through many partnerships, and gotten us quite a bit of attention. In fact, we were a finalist for the Alberta Emerald Award in the education category, and we’ve been recognized as one of the greenest schools in Canada! 

As the club started growing, community members actually wanted to get involved, and so the number of projects that we could achieve grew.

How did the EcoVision club get started?

SS: “Words without actions are meaningless.” I had said this to a grade 10 class over a decade ago, and three years later, in 2006, one of the students that was in that class approached me and said she wanted to make a difference and get the school off the grid by moving to solar power.

I had told her that she needed to: 1) find a group of friends, 2) create a vision statement, and 3) come up with a plan. Within a week she had 13 students join her and together they came up with a vision statement, which we’ve used since that day in 2006. Their first plan was to put a solar system on the roof of the school, and they spent 3 years fundraising, even going door to door, and raised $40,000 to install a 6-kilowatt solar system! That initial project became the inspiration for EcoVision and the 10-15 eco-projects that have followed. As you can see, from its very beginning, the club has been student-run and student-led!

What projects are you working on right now?

Learn more about the BEE WISE project in this video:

SS: Our current projects are Roofs 4 Kids (we’re building a rooftop garden with a goat sanctuary), BEE WISE (a beekeeping program), and the Greenhouse. 

Unfortunately, many of our events and activities have been put on hold because of the pandemic. But we’ve still been able to keep EcoVision students busy by moving some projects and activities online. 

As an example, our students have been growing plants for an online plant sale in support of the Lacombe Foodbank; 15% of the plant sales are going to the food bank, with the rest of the money raised going back into EcoVision.

We’ve partnered with some stores and restaurants to launch an online store to further support our program. The store sells a variety of items, from honey to milk to succulents to seeds, and has provided some great business experience for our students.

We’ve been keeping EcoVision students busy with regular meetings, website maintenance, and additional courses.  

We also got a tremendous offer with an organization called Verge Permaculture who is putting an online course together to help students learn to design their own gardens and their own future homes using practices and systems that happen in nature. The program includes three essentials: collecting water, creating healthy soil, and collecting or using the energy that’s available. 

The club is also preparing virtual beekeeping courses for the general public. They are hoping to expand their ability to meet the beekeeping needs of Central Alberta residents. 

Can you tell us a bit more about your innovative greenhouse?

SS: The greenhouse has been such a great project that the students are so excited about. It’s a tropical greenhouse, and we’re proud to say that it is almost net zero, meaning it produces as much energy as it needs through eco-friendly systems. There’s a geothermal climate battery under the ground, and the temperature is also managed by a vent system that operates automatically using beeswax. We also have a tilapia fish tank that acts as a heatsink.

In the greenhouse, we’re growing banana trees, lemons, avocado, sunflowers, pineapples, peppers, succulents, fig trees, and herbs. The aim is to grow a lot of the produce for the school’s cafeteria.

You can go on a tour of the greenhouse in this video with student Darcey Cunningham. And in this short video, a student shows the aquaponics system up close and explains how it works. The next phase for the greenhouse is to design the interior further and create an outdoor classroom and garden. 

Like all of our projects, students are involved every step of the way, including the research, fundraising and building. And it’s been so great for community engagement — we have a lot of excited volunteers and have made many amazing partnerships in the community.

How are the projects organized and maintained over time?

SS: Students take on different projects they are interested in. Some might focus on vermicomposting, while others are out in the garden or greenhouse. It’s all student-led though, including the ideas themselves and initial research for the projects. 

We have a three-year student life cycle. So we’ll adopt one three-year project for that cycle, and then year-long projects within that, like our ongoing school gardening project. The building of the greenhouse, on the other hand, was one of the longer-term projects.

Many dedicated students as well as volunteers work hard to water and care for the plants in and around the greenhouse. We use the food we harvest in our cafeteria and donate many fresh greens as well. We continuously try new plants too — we have planted fruit trees so that next summer our orchard will be ready for the students and community. 

How does the funding for the various projects work?

SS: It’s all about community partnerships and seeking grants. We’ve received a lot of support from the city too. For example, for the BEE WISE program, we went to the City of Lacombe and got permission to do a pilot project, and then received a Youth Environmental Engagement Grant that connected us with the Emerald Foundation. This funding let us buy bee hives and build a new pollinator garden.

What sort of impact are you seeing?

SS: We can see a tremendous impact among the students. Project-based learning instills skills in such an impactful way, and the projects give students a great sense of accomplishment. Their excitement is palpable.

One student shares her pride in this video: “I’m so excited. It just sounds so cool to just tell everyone, ‘our school has a greenhouse.’ LCSH, we’re not a very big city of Lacombe here, and we have a greenhouse and we’ve accomplished so much in our clubs. We have such a good leadership committee here. We work so hard. We have really an exceptional group at our school right now, and we’ve achieved so much through that, and the greenhouse is just evidence of all that we can do as a school and as a community.

We also see clear environmental impacts, like energy savings after installing the solar panels; or, when we first started collecting organic waste from the foods department for our composting program, we gathered 125 kg in the first month!

In the video below EcoVision students share firsthand what successes they’ve seen from the EcoVision and agricultural programs:

 

What have been some of the key factors for the club’s success?

EcoVision students share their ingredients for success:

What are some of your favourite foods that you’re harvesting?

Hear students share what foods and products they are most excited about:

 

What types of challenges has EcoVision encountered?

Students share some of the main challenges:

 

Yet, often challenges come with silver linings! Hear some of the positive takeaways:

Do you have any final tips for others interested in implementing similar projects?

Steve Schultz shares some of his top tips in this video where he explains “do not underestimate the importance of student involvement, volunteers, and research”:

 

In this final video, Steve shares what Lacombe has in store for the future:

The school team would love to share best practices and plans with others. If you want to reach out to Steve and the EcoVision community, visit their website at http://lchsecovision.weebly.com/ or reach out to Steve directly.   

We offer a big thank you to Steve, to Janet (EcoVision’s Community Coordinator) and to all of the students who contributed to this case study!

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