Campus Chickens Combat Climate Change

Campus Chickens Combat Climate Change

By Tonyia Cone

If you thought you might have heard clucking the last time you were on the Dell Jewish Community Campus, you were not mistaken. Due to the hard work and persistence of three Austin Jewish Academy sixth graders and their teacher Kathy Rosenmann, six chickens now live outside AJA’s Science and Innovation Center.

The project was part of a unit on global climate change.

“Our emphasis in middle school science and engineering is on environmentalism and sustainability. So in sixth grade, for example, the students take a course called “Energy and the Environment” in conjunction with their study of Earth Science,” said Rosenmann, AJA’s  middle school science, technology, engineering and math – or STEM -- teacher.

Rosenmann’s students have spent time this year learning about weather, water, the atmosphere, culminating in a big unit on global climate change. She explained that students study effects of global climate change and are tasked with developing a service project to bring awareness to the problem and become change agents.

One group of students implemented a school-wide food waste program that involves composting school lunch waste. Another group taught students in other grades about the benefits of worms and set up vermicomposting – worm composting -- bins in each AJA classroom. A third group planted a fruit tree grove and created a bird sanctuary on the campus, and others set up aquaponics systems, combining aquaculture and hydroponics to create closed, symbiotic eco systems.

Austin Jewish Academy's Liora Susswein, Allyn Sapire, Kathy Rosenmann and Rafi Zeifman with new chicken coop on the Dell Jewish Community Campus. Credit: Tonyia Cone

Austin Jewish Academy's Liora Susswein, Allyn Sapire, Kathy Rosenmann and Rafi Zeifman with new chicken coop on the Dell Jewish Community Campus. Credit: Tonyia Cone

“We’re really trying to teach kids that all of our actions have an effect on our planet, on our Earth, and that we all need to do our part. We all can be catalysts for change and collectively, we can make a difference,” said Rosenmann, who has taught at AJA for 10 years.

“We try to infuse Jewish values in all of our teachings about the environment. There are a lot of great organizations out there, Hazan and other groups, that promote Jewish environmentalism. So we try to weave that in wherever possible,” she added.

For their project, students Allyn Sapire, Liora Susswein and Rafi Zeifman campaigned to bring backyard chickens on campus in order to raise awareness about the benefits of growing one’s own food. Some of the chickens’ eggs will be used for school lunches, and the students will sell eggs after school on Fridays to pay for recurring costs like chicken feed and bedding.

The team’s first step was to get Shalom Austin CEO Jay Rubin and the Dell Jewish Community Campus (DJCC) Development Corporation Board of Directors to allow the chickens on campus. The students presented their idea verbally and in a well-researched paper to AJA Head of School Cheryl Hersh and then to Rubin, who reached out to Board. The students got word that their project-based learning proposal was approved 10 days later, on the last day before they would have had to pursue another project.

Ron Ginor, founder of Austin Chicken Coops, a not-for-profit project developed to make 50 coops, whose children attended AJA, donated a coop and its setup for the project.

“We try to provide an affordable, turn-key chicken and egg experience to families and organizations. We deliver a coop, fencing, instruction and chickens (if wanted), directly to homes, farms and business. ‎Typically, people are collecting eggs for breakfast the next morning,” Ginor said of Austin Chicken Coops.

When Sapire, Susswein and Zeifman were unable to find chickens to purchase – since raising backyard chickens in Central Texas is a popular hobby – Austin Chicken Coops again came to their rescue. Just a few hours after Rosenmann called asking for advice about where to look for chickens, Austin Chicken Coops’ manager, Angel Hernandez, showed up with two Ameraucana chickens, two chickens that are a cross between Rhode Island and New Hampshire Reds, and two Barred Rock chickens.

Ginor said, “We feel chickens are an incredible, living example of a perfect synergy between humans and nature. Chickens have been providing of themselves to mankind for countless generations and children tend to sense that right at first contact.”

The seven-month old chickens live in a shady area with lots of trees, in a large coop surrounded by green space and an enclosure designed to keep them contained and safe from predators. Sapire, Susswein and Zeifman build sustainability into the care of the animals by feeding them lunch scraps and composting chicken waste.

The chickens – named Cricket, Puff, Flash, Cooper, Diggy and Chamoodi, which is Hebrew for “cutie” -- are female, because neither the students, AJA or the DJCC wanted to end up with fertilized eggs or noisy roosters.

Sapire, Susswein and Zeifman created a chore schedule to ensure the chickens are well cared for. They involve others by teaching JCC Early Childhood Program (ECP) preschoolers and AJA elementary school classes about their project and creating art projects using the chickens as the subject of photographs.

Rosenmann’s students also create documentary films about their projects, and the assignment culminates when they present the films twice to their classmates for peer review before presenting at an expo.

“This STEM project is a shining example of the meaningful and relevant student-driven learning taking place at AJA,” said Hersh.

“Here a group of students created a project, under the guidance of their teacher that they were able to bring to fruition with the collaborative support of Shalom Austin and the DJCC Development Corporation. The continuity of the project positively impacts this campus for our students as well as the Early Childhood Program who are making daily visits,” Hersh said.

Going forward, Rosenmann plans to continue to help her students be environmentally conscious.

“Kids really have buy-in. The biggest problem this generation will face is global climate change. The thing that is so important in science education now is to impress this upon children. It’s such a monumental concern for their generation and coming decades. It’s a problem they will really need to address,” she added.

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