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NIANTIC – Teaching horticulture and agricultural science is challenging when your only greenery is a half-dozen potted plants in a classroom window.

Sangamon Valley High School teacher Britney Cowan knew her students needed more hands-on experience than that. What they needed was a greenhouse.

School budgets are tight, and Sangamon Valley couldn't afford the $60,000 price tag for a greenhouse, so Cowan and her students set out to raise the funds themselves, and their new 21-by-27 foot greenhouse should be finished and functional by next month.

“We do a lot of labs to learn our stuff and it will be easier to do labs in the greenhouse,” said Kyle Parish, a junior studying agricultural science and serves as the school's FFA chapter reporter. He is particularly interested in soil science. “There will be more room to do experiments.”

Students do experiments and study light and soil in Cowan's classroom and use the school's science lab when they can, but neither situation is ideal, Cowan said. Her classroom has only two windows, and it's impossible to create a controlled study when they can't control the light source, for example.

Kyle is considering several career options, but agriculture is one of them, and he said he's looking forward to exploring soil science in far greater depth in the new greenhouse.

Cowan and her students have raised $40,000 of the $60,000 needed in two years, thanks in part to grants from local businesses, she said, which include Monsanto in Illiopolis, the Pioneer Seed dealership run by Dan Miller and Jason Lubich, Tom Leeper and Mycogen Seeds, the Improving Your Ag Program grant from the Illinois State Board of Education and the Facilitating Coordination of Agricultural Education Initiative.

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“The idea for the greenhouse was, Sangamon Valley has a fairly new agriculture program,” Cowan said. “The school didn't come into existence as Sangamon Valley until 2004 and before that, neither Niantic-Harristown or Illiopolis high schools had agriculture departments. So when the schools came together and Sangamon Valley was formed, they started an agriculture program. About 55 percent (of high school ag programs) have greenhouses to go along with their agriculture programs. We wanted to have one here so we could expand our program and give students more hands-on learning.”

Her horticulture students will also use the greenhouse, and plans are to have students grow plants for a spring plant sale. Ag business students will oversee the sale and marketing. Ag science students will be able to do controlled experiments with light, water and soil that they can't do now, and the community has already stepped up to offer a wide variety of plants to get them started.

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Aaron Bouslog spray-paints beams.

“It's much more effective (to study with a greenhouse) because they can see it on a larger scale,” Cowan said. “There's more opportunity to really get their hands dirty. In here, we've been doing it in here with our window plants, but we'll be able to do it with more plants. It's hard to alter things like light in here. We have one light source. In the greenhouse, we can play with light and see how it truly affects the plants.”

The school board was supportive from the beginning, Cowan said. She presented a proposal to them that included the benefits to students, which will extend beyond class work. Eventually, she hopes to be able to hire a couple of students to keep records and manage the greenhouse.

Connor Fryman, a sophomore who serves as the FFA treasurer, comes from an agricultural family. He's taking both horticulture and ag science.

“The thing I'm looking forward to the most is being able to be hands-on,” Connor said. “That's how I learn, by being hands-on, so instead of having to sit there with a select few plants, we'll have a full variety of plants and be able to learn about each one and the specific things each one needs to grow.”

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Contact Valerie Wells at (217) 421-7982. Follow her on Twitter: @modgirlreporter

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Herald & Review.

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