Students at Plum Borough School District have proven that it’s never too early to make an impact on your community. With the implementation of their Center Grows program, this group of fourth graders has managed to create an environment-friendly business model of the future.

Center Grows puts students at the helm of new-age food processing techniques, while contributing the results of their efforts back to the community. The idea was brought to Plum Borough by fourth grade teacher and Champions of Learning Award recipient J.R. Pilyih. The concept for Center Grows was brought over from Pilyih’s previous elementary school, this time with funding and support from nonprofit organization Real World Scholars. What started as a simple gardening club has evolved into a full-on humanitarian initiative.

Plum Borough’s first venture into the green scene started with a grant from Grow Pittsburgh, a local nonprofit that puts gardens in schools and educates students about agricultural concepts. With newly acquired indoor and outdoor gardens, Center Grows has already begun taking full advantage of its resources.

The group’s first undertaking dealt with aquaponic and hydroponic garden systems. Pilyih believes this is the future of food growth, with production unlikely to be limited strictly to farms in the coming years. Designed for both the short and long term, these systems grow food faster, use less water and are protected from the outdoor elements. The tilapia raised in Center Grows’ aquaponic system create a symbiotic environment that stimulates plant growth, which led to a surplus of lettuce that was donated to the school cafeteria.

Gardening was just the beginning for Center Grows, as students began to shift their focus to creating eco-friendly products. From reusable grocery bags to stainless steel water bottles, the students of Center Grows began designing and 3D printing sustainable merchandise to sell to the community. These products are a win-win for everyone: Not only do they benefit the community and the environment, but the sales help to promote Center Grows and the educational opportunities made possible for these children.

“They feel part of something that’s in their hands,” Pilyih says. “It makes them want to be there; it motivates them and they’re getting their education, healthy lifestyle and lessons from it.”

On top of what they learn from gardening, the business aspect of Center Grows is a whole new angle of education for the students. Pilyih believes there are so many lessons to be learned from Center Grows — thinking outside the box, failing and learning from mistakes, and getting acquainted with the process of shipping and handling. Plum Borough Principal Jason Knisely was also impressed by what his students have been able to accomplish.

“I sit back in amazement,” Knisely says. “I have fourth graders running a business, and they do it well.”

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