Innovation Academy students explain how vertical farming  works to their classmates and school guests on Feb. 13 during Captain Planet’s visit.

Though his time on television ended more than 20 years ago, Captain Planet still finds a way to teach young people about the importance of environmental conservation while warning of the dangers of pollution.

On a recent trip to the Innovation Academy school in Oro Valley, that mission materialized into a gardening lesson for a group of excited students who’ve spent a fair bit of time preparing gardens throughout campus. With the Captain in tow, students trimmed lettuce and kale, washed and dried their haul and prepared a fresh salad with homemade dressing.

More than just a morning in the garden, students were learning about the life cycle of plants and the importance of a healthy meal, all thanks to the Captain Planet Foundation.

Named after the titular hero of the children’s show, the foundation operates the Project Learning Garden program which furnishes schools with funding for materials, facilitates taste testing events and cooking demos, and provides instructional material and curriculum.

“Our mission is to empower youth to be change makers in our environment,” said Tasha Gomes, the foundation’s program manager for the learning garden. “Outside of gardening, it’s plastic pollution, protecting endangered species and empowering the youth to go out and make change.”

Partnering with fruit company Dole and Bashas’ to provide funding and local support, the foundation connected with Innovation Academy thanks to grant writing provided by third grade teacher Mabel Rivera.

Rivera said she was initially interested in the grant program because it would provide a positive learning experience for both her colleagues and her students. The foundation also trained teachers at the school to integrate gardening and similar subjects into their standard curriculum.

After seeing the excitement of her students once Captain Planet visited the school last Thursday morning, Rivera realized they were the true beneficiaries of the day.

“The kids are celebrating the fact that they’ve done such great work,” she said.

The excitement was tangible as students explained to representatives from the foundation, Dole and Bashas’ how they built their irrigated gardens, and what plants they were growing.

As a STEM-focused school, Innovation Academy is always looking for ways to apply real-world scenarios to class work, according to principal Michael McConnell.

“Kids can see the connection between what they’re learning academically—the reading, writing and math, science and social studies—and see where it fits into the real world,” McConnell said. “This is a great connection, because our kids are seeing how the life cycle plays out in the garden, and from the dirt to the table.”

Gomes said the enthusiasm on display by students, teachers, administrators and parents are the driving force behind their work. She called the school “incredible,” and said she applauds Innovation Academy for its engagement with the community, project-based learning and application of STEM principals.

“It’s really exciting to come to a place like Innovation Academy,” Gomes said. “We know that after the cameras leave and after we leave, the work that we’re getting a tiny glimpse of today is going to continue.”

That sense of dedication was echoed by McConnell, who said he fully expects gardening to remain a part of the Innovation curriculum in years to come.

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