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From empty field to eco farm

Students in the Wairarapa are designing and developing a sustainable farm and learning hub from scratch.

Kids with plants

Every week, rain or shine, students from across the Wairarapa meet at South End School in Carterton to work on a truly unique project – turning the school’s empty paddock into an environmentally sustainable farm.

Called Te Kura o Papatūānuku Wairarapa Earth School, this long-term project centres around student-driven research and development, rather than just teacher-led lessons.

Classmates team up to explore an idea, problem or solution themselves while being guided by expert mentors such as architects, surveyors, scientists and business owners. The students also help each other, with the teens passing on what they know to younger participants.

Te Kura o Papatūānuku began in 2017 as a partnership between South End School, Kuranui College, Makoura College and the Wairarapa Montessori Charitable Trust. Students from these schools created a master plan to create a school farm and sustainable building – complete with a treehouse kitchen for learning to cook produce grown on the farm.

Students sat in front of their farm planning board

The end goal is to build a viable farming enterprise and teaching farm, as well as create the Wairarapa region’s first science hub for all locals – not just students – to learn about and take action for more sustainable living.

"The purpose is to create a cultural change to be more mindful of the environment and our impact on it," says project coordinator and biochemist Dr Emilie Neubauer.

Having students in the driving seat has led to the birth of multiple pilot projects working towards this long-term goal. The sustainable enterprise team, for instance, has collaborated with Boomerang Bags in Carterton to share skills and create zero waste products to sell at the local farmer’s market.

Students selling zero waste products at a farmers' market

The students are also creating an outdoor garden classroom at South End School for exploring and trialling potential methods to be used on the farm when it is built.

Activities have included exploring how soil acidity can affect plant health and finding out which plants benefit each other as neighbours, as well as planting fruit trees and bushes, building bug hotels, setting up a composting laboratory, and constructing a wooden shed to house their gardening tools.

"I loved building the shed – it was hard work but really fun," says Shae, 12, from South End School. "I learnt a lot about the wood – like the texture and how to cut it a certain way and how to put nails in it the right way."

Students building the shedCompleted shed

Instead of using a traditional farm or vegetable garden layout for the garden classroom, the students have planted their edible plants in a way that creates an ecosystem that will over time flourish into a ‘food forest’.

"We’ve planted things like lemon trees, nectarine trees, silver beet and lots of edible weeds like dandelions, which we can make tea from," says Lola, 14, from South End School. "We learnt about the edible weeds from a local woman who’s an expert on foraging."

All the activities students do through Te Kura Papatūānuku tie in with the national curriculum as well as being immediately applicable to their everyday lives.

"The hands-on outdoors stuff is a really immersive way to make the science relevant," Emily says.

Students and project coordinators in the garden classroom

The students are now investigating how they can use the garden classroom as a tool for teaching science, technology, engineering, maths and mātauranga (Māori knowledge) related topics to other students. 

At the same time, Emilie and the other project coordinators are taking the ideas on the road and offering sustainability lesson plans to other Wairarapa schools. The latest to get involved is Fernridge School in Masterton, where over forty students recently attended a workshop at South End School’s garden classroom.

"For me, the biggest highlight so far has been creating more space with and for other schools in the area and sharing it as a community hub," says South End School principal Clare Crawford. "It’s a great way to use what we’ve got and make the most of it."

Visit Te Kura o Papatūānuku website

Photos: supplied (top image, farmers' market, shed images).

About the project

Kura o Papatūānuku logo
Te Kura o Papatūānuku Wairarapa Earth School
 has been supported by the Wairarapa Montessori Charitable Trust and the Unlocking Curious Minds contestable fund. It is now a self-sustaining registered charitable trust.



Unlocking Curious Minds

Unlocking Curious Minds supports projects that excite and engage New Zealanders who have fewer opportunities to experience and connect with science and technology.

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