K-12 students compete in plant growing contest while growing their STEM  knowledge

Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020

Leafy greens

OLATHE — Students in Greater Kansas City recently competed in a leafy greens growing contest at Kansas State University's Olathe campus while gaining STEM knowledge and an awareness of food science careers.

The Willie and the Salad Bonanza Contest challenges students to grow different types of greens, including Space Hybrid spinach, Lacinato kale and Black-Seeded Simpson lettuce in one container for 45 days. The annual contest was set up differently this year, as precautions for COVID-19 were taken. Only elementary schools met in person at the beginning of the contest, so the middle and high school divisions adapted their design and growing strategies to operate from home. Seeds were mailed to the participants, as one of the safety strategies.

Each team determined what watering schedule, container type, lighting, fertilizer and temperature would produce the best results. Some designed and constructed greenhouses out of plastic tubs, while others vigilantly watched the weather and brought in growing trays when frost threatened the plants. Participants documented their efforts throughout the growing period and met during pre-assigned arrival times for judging, wherein industry leaders measured the biomass of the plants and ranked the teams.  

"This competition offers the opportunity to engage students like no other experience," said Martha Nowak, K-12 coordinator at K-State Olathe and contest organizer. "Besides being able to consume greens grown personally, spinoff discussions around the family dinner table and in classrooms may center around GMOs, the application of plant nutrition, the complex process of organic certification, and how we will feed the world in 2050. We hope more will take advantage of this activity next fall."

Along with Nowak's help, the contest was made possible with the help of co-sponsor, Compass Minerals. The winners maximized growth using Spring, a plant nutrition developed by Compass Minerals.

Winners are:

  • Elementary: Shirk's Squad (second grade) at Prairie Center Elementary, with sponsor Courtney Shirk; 
  • Middle School: Burgraff's 4th Hour Science at Baldwin Jr. High School;
  • High School: Sydney McCracken of Olathe North High School, with sponsor Greg Krenke