June 6, 2018 | By: Katie Pratt
Princeton, Ky.

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Students in Lyon and Caldwell counties spent some of their final days before summer vacation learning about crops, insects and diseases at the University of Kentucky Research and Education Center in Princeton.

The fourth- and fifth-graders participated in a project led by Zenaida Viloria, UK horticulture research analyst, which allowed them to take information they learned at the center and directly apply it to gardens at the school and at their homes. The project was funded by a UK Sustainability Challenge Grant.

“When I first came here two years ago, I just loved this place and thought it was a beautiful place to teach kids,” said Viloria, a member of the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. “We are located in a rural area of Kentucky that has very few opportunities for students to engage in experiential learning outside of their classroom; so when the grant became available, I decided to apply.”

Viloria worked closely with Abby Smith, a fourth-grade teacher at Lyon County Elementary School, and Laura White, assistant principal at Caldwell County Elementary School, to develop a program that was not only fun for the children but reinforced concepts they learned in class. This spring, students learned earthworm composting, energy conservation, different types of plants, insects, diseases and soils.

“We dug into the different educational standards to find the things we could do out here and back at the school to create a meaningful experience for these kids, so it’s something they can remember for many years to come,” Smith said.

Viloria partnered with the schools to build four raised-bed gardens at each school. Students filled the raised beds with a variety of vegetables. Fourth- and fifth-graders from each school came to the center twice this spring to learn about different topics related to gardening and horticulture from UK faculty and staff. Susan Fox, Lyon County agriculture and natural resources extension agent, Lyon County Master Gardener Association and entomology graduate students contributed to the outreach project. Students from each school will return to the center twice this fall. In the meantime, students and school personnel will maintain the beds throughout the summer.

The project was an opportunity for center personnel to directly engage young people in Western Kentucky and get them excited about science, gardening and agriculture and maybe interest them in pursuing a career in a related field.

“Our industry is screaming for educated people. In agriculture, in general, we’re hiring highly educated, technically savvy young people to fill positions at fairly good salaries, and we don’t have the people we need,” said Win Dunwell, UK extension horticulture specialist. “Part of the program was to educate these young students, so they have at least some idea what horticulture is, what agriculture is and how all these systems relate to one another to produce a sustainable crop.”

This is a project that many students like Lyon County fourth-grader Jenna Coursey are excited to continue.

“I knew a little bit because my family raises two gardens, but when I came here, I learned a lot more,” she said. “I’m excited to go back and tell my dad how to help a garden grow more and how our plants have changed here. When I come back this fall, I’m hoping to see how the plants and the composting we did have turned out.”


Zenaida Viloria, 270-365-7541, ext. 279; Win Dunwell, 270-365-7541, ext. 209