Roadmap for Resilience

Student reporters write about Santa Fe Community College’s vision and programs for a sustainable future

Imagine a self-sufficient community where water, food and energy are generated locally, using sustainable methods, and where creativity and innovation are prioritized. That's the vision at Santa Fe Community College's Trades and Advanced Technology Center, which houses the School of Trades, Technology, Sustainability & Professional Studies. Over the last eight years, the program has established multiple degree and certificate programs in emergent fields such as biofuels, controlled environment agriculture and green building. Approximately 450 students are enrolled in the center's various programs, where instructors emphasize hands-on learning and ingenuity.

"We're trying to demonstrate what a sustainable and resilient college looks like," says Luke Spangenberg, director of SFCC's Biofuels Center of Excellence as well as its Innovation Center. When the center was built, he says, it was with the Field of Dreams "If You Build It, They Will Come" attitude.

"Well, they did," he says, "and they continue to come, and one of the things we find so rewarding is people are coming into these programs to change the world."

For this week's cover story, four interns accepted into the spring training cohort for the New Mexico Fund for Public Interest Journalism, SFR's nonprofit partner, dug into reporting and writing about some of the sustainability programs offered at SFCC. This project was created in a collaboration with the school's Trades and Advanced Technology Center, and was partially funded through a grant from the City of Santa Fe's Children and Youth Commission's Innovation Fund.

The Journo Fund will open for a new round of interns in the fall. Check for more information on this program.

— Julia Goldberg, president, New Mexico Fund for Public Interest Journalism and intern mentor

Sustainable Lessons:

The education system is teaching today’s youth about the planet’s future health

By Olivia Abeyta

Outside the Santa Fe Community College, a life-size model of a blue whale sits in mid-swim.

The flashes of cerulean, cyan and navy blue are visible from rooftops. The whale, owned by Meow Wolf, symbolizes more than just the beauty of nature. Students of faculty member Xubi Wilson, the coordinator for the school's renewable energy programs, are set to light up the structure, made of recycled materials to raise awareness about the impact of plastic, strictly using renewable energy sources.

The project exemplifies the use of science and technology to teach the next generation about the importance of sustainability. Wilson's class learns how to measure and determine how systems can be maintained without resource depletion, while also digging into the history of renewable energy. From this program, one can attain degrees in solar energy, biofuels and controlled environment agriculture.

"All of the programs here have an aspect of sustainability involved with them," Wilson says.

This sort of curriculum is also wending its way into the Santa Fe Public Schools system. While SFPS has 13 solar-powered campuses and activities related to sustainability, starting in the next academic year, students can enroll in a new Advanced Placement environmental science class at both Capital and Santa Fe High schools.

Environmentally conscious practices such as recycling, composting and water conservation are immensely important as well.

"These are practical things, life skills, information they are going to … use as adults," SFPS Sustainability Program Specialist Elena Kayak says, noting that students not only explore these practices at school, but can also educate their parents about them at home. Students also learn about renewable energy tools, such as solar panels and wind turbines.

Hands-on projects teach the importance of the environment in experiential ways. For example, elementary school students at Salazar, Nava and Carlos Gilbert are participating in the "Adopt an Arroyo" program, in which the schools' fifth-grade classes not only clean up and maintain arroyos, but also learn about the surrounding ecosystems.

Some elementary schools also have outdoor classrooms where students learn elements of environmental science, as well as composting and gardening skills.

All of these practices and lessons given by SFPS are beneficial and have room to expand. Stephen Gómez, an associate professor and chair of sustainable trades and advanced technologies at SFCC, also has ideas on how his Green Energy Curriculum, which is only taught at SFCC, could be integrated into the K-12 environment.

With that kind of curriculum, Gómez says, students would learn fundamental aspects of science in correlation with the importance of renewable energy. All levels of education would be delivered through hands-on or project-based learning rather than lecture-based science classes. For example, students can learn chemistry through a biodiesel class.

Gómez also proposes that at the high school level, students should be able to take an energy literacy class "so that students know the difference between coal, oil [and] solar [energy]." Gómez is a member of the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department's New Mexico Road Map Project, created with the nonprofit public-policy group New Mexico First, designed to make the state's energy economy adaptable to future changes.

Both SFPS and SFCC are working to help future generations recognize the importance of renewable energy sources. With the world's climate situation as critical as it is today, future generations will have to learn sustainability and renewability for the planet to begin its path to recovery.

Olivia Abeyta is a rising junior at Santa Fe High School and is part of the school's journalism class. She enjoys writing about issues facing the next generation and how they will change the future. She also loves to draw and write her own stories. She hopes to inspire others through her art and writing.

Food Without Soil:

Could hydroponics be the key to growing crops in space?

By Max Looft

Just out of high school in the late 1980s, eating a diet of birds and fish, Charlie Shultz was surprised to see one day on the news that mounds of medical waste—syringes, pill bottles and blood vials—were washing up on the beaches of Atlantic City, New Jersey. Dubbed the Syringe Tide, the event caused him to realize the very food on which he was living was contaminated.

Prior to that day, Shultz saw fish as one of the best resources for efficiently and cleanly feeding people. From that point on, he began learning how to sustainably grow fish and, as far as back as the 1990s, he was envisioning how to use hydroponics to grow food in space.

Today, Shultz, lead faculty for Santa Fe Community College's controlled environment agriculture program, expands students' horizons on alternative ways to farm and grow food. Hydroponics is a simple concept, but hard to master. It requires growing food without soil, by cycling nutrient-rich water through the roots. Aquaponics, the field in which Shultz specializes, is a similar process, but adds fish to the equation, creating a symbiotic relationship between fish and plants, thereby growing both.

Shultz teaches a variety of subjects in the program: plant anatomy, greenhouse management, hydroponics, aquaponics, water conservation and filtration. With these, his students learn many methods of managing greenhouses, and the jobs that come with them. Over the past few years, Shultz has begun to notice increasing numbers of students talking about space, and how the techniques they are learning may help grow food someplace other than Earth.

Certainly, questions of how humans might live on another planet have risen in prominence with announcements such as NASA's stated goal to return to the moon by 2024 and SpaceX's proposals to colonize Mars.

Even though Mars' soil may prove suitable for growing certain crops, Shultz believes hydroponics and aquaponics is a better method for growing food on another planet. It's a topic he has explored in articles co-authored with scientist and author Mark Nelson, a participant in the early 1990s in the closed-environment experiment Biosphere 2.

"Having traditional farms on Mars just like here, it's just not the way to use water efficiently," Shultz says. "Just like here, every drop of water is precious, and I want to get every use out of that drop as much as possible."

It's not a no-brainer for everyone, though. Farmer and scientist Linden Schneider, online education coordinator for the Santa Fe Institute, has been working in biogeochemistry for the last 12 years. She says soil is required to maintain the complexity of the food-growing process: "It cycles waste, it provides food, it stores water, it cycles gasses, and all of these things are really difficult to replicate because it comes out of that complex geochemical system," she says. Moreover, in space, the water that soil uses in an environment with lower gravity would be reduced, putting it on slightly more even grounds with hydroponics.

Mars' soil itself presents a problem, though, as the soil isn't exactly "soil," but instead mostly volcanic rock devoid of life. Not only that, but Mars' regolith—the layer above the bedrockcontains toxic salts known as perchlorates. This does not entirely take traditional farming out of the scenario, but it makes things more difficult.

Other issues that need to be considered are what kinds of food need to be grown. Astronauts grew red romaine lettuce on the International Space Station back in 2015, demonstrating it as a viable option for food. Superfoods, as Shultz puts it, are ideal for cultivation in space because they have the ability to pull up the nutrients and accumulate them. Water spinach and sweet potato vines—even algae—are exceptionally high in nutrients. "I don't think when we go to space it's going to be about taste," Shultz says. "It's going to be what you need to live."

Linden views legumes as a viable source of food, as they are able to fix nitrogen and provide a high amount of protein. However, rather than advocate for one specific plant, she recommends using an agroecological approach in which the plant communities "are heterogeneous, and this provides a ton of interactions and benefits to us which we cannot quantify."

The dispute on how we can one day live on another planet continues, but there is one point on which many can agree: put those resources into Earth first. Although advancing into space may be the next frontier, home is still where we should develop these technologies to help those down here.

Asked what he thinks about how we are progressing with better ways to grow food, both on and off-planet, Shultz had this to say: "I think we're attacking it in a nice balance." Overall, though, "I think we're going to be here more than we're going to be in space."

Max Looft is a rising senior at Santa Fe High School, who is now in his second year of journalism. His articles mostly center around space and technology, and he has established his own column on the Demon Tattler for space news. His priorities lie in fiction writing, but believes journalism is a solid way to keep him writing and to broaden his horizons on the topic of science. His lack of outgoingness and quick energy is made up for in his steady and thorough work, which may not help with being a bustling reporter, but instead a solid writer. 

New Growth:

SFCC’s greenhouse helps feed students and promote sustainable agriculture

By Anna Girdner

Pedro Casas Cordero's interest in growing food started more than a decade ago, when he still lived in Puerto Rico. He was attending a talk on food at his then 3-year-old daughter's school. When the students were asked where lettuce comes from, several responded by naming Burger King or McDonald's. They did not realize that lettuce springs from the ground, much like daisies.

"I was like, 'What is happening in this world?'" Casas Cordero says. A switch flipped in his mind and he realized: "I want to change the world. I want to change people's minds. I want to teach people where food comes from."

He left his job as a graphic designer. "I started experimenting and doing my agriculture at home at my garden."

He and his family moved to the US a year and a half ago, when Hurricane Maria destroyed his farm in Puerto Rico. Today, he is a greenhouse technician and adjunct faculty member in SFCC's controlled environment agriculture program.

These days, when Casas Cordero checks on the greenhouse during school breaks and weekends, he sometimes brings his daughter with him. "Sometimes she's like, 'Dad, I like the cucumbers from your plants better than the ones at the store,' because they taste better because they're fresher. [In the store], they're sitting there five [or] seven days before you buy them, and we're eating them straight from the plant."

In the college's controlled ag courses, students learn everything from small home systems to commercial systems, and classes emphasize hands-on practical experience growing plants using multiple systems.

In one regularly offered two-credit class, students design and build greenhouses and growing systems, sometimes for other community members. This semester, for example, students are helping Monte Del Sol Charter School build its new dome greenhouse. Students previously worked on projects for Love Yourself Café and Ampersand Sustainable Learning Center.

The benefits of a greenhouse and of growing one's own food are many, including reducing food that is wasted as a result of transit and spoilage. Today, roughly one third of the food produced globally—approximately 1.3 billion tons—goes to waste, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. For restaurants, using locally grown produce means their products have a longer shelf life. Food grown in greenhouses also is reliably free of chemical fertilizers, and various crops can be grown out of season.

Charlie Shultz, lead faculty for the controlled environment agriculture program, is in the midst of building—bit by bit to spread out the cost—his own greenhouse in his backyard at home. In addition to the benefits already mentioned, he sees other payoffs.

"If I have lettuce in my greenhouse and you have chicken with eggs, we can trade," he says. "I don't have to do chickens and lettuce. If I can do just one crop, we can form more co-ops and communities. Growing in your backyard to barter and trade helps community development. It helps build more resilient communities."

In addition to helping others learn to build their own greenhouses, SFCC's courses also experiment with ways to grow food more sustainably.

One such way is the water recycling Dutch bucket method, in which plastic buckets are hooked up to pipes in order to circulate the water through the plants, and then back again so it wastes less water. The method is being used to grow crops such as lettuce, cucumbers and blackberries.

And the plastic that's used is put to good use, like the five blue recycling bins repurposed as papaya tree pots.

"I'm the kind of guy that promotes if you want to use plastic, then use plastic you're going to reuse," Casas Cordero says.

The facility, Casas Cordero says, introduces students to a variety of systems—commercial and small-scale—"to expose [them] to what's really out there." But the program overall has a more capacious impact:

"We're trying to use this college to guide people to another vision," Casas Cordero says. "There's always a way to fix things, there's always a way to be creative and always a way to do the right thing."

Anna Girdner, 19, is a rising sophomore at Santa Fe Community College. She has been writing creative pieces for many years, which helped her gain an interest in journalism. After taking several writing courses at SFCC, she finally felt that it was the right time to start pursuing journalism. 

Farming the Future:

Students find unique educational opportunities in emergent technologies

By James Taylor

Abey Torrez is harvesting a flat brimming with live lettuce. Its healthy white roots dangle below, smelling of pond water. The background gurgling of the underwater pumps, fish and algae further the sense of lush green freshness. Torrez, adjunct instructor and greenhouse technician, spends the early morning hours feeding schools of fish, performing water quality tests and harvesting produce. Then, in the afternoon, Torrez, who retired after 25 years as an Army master sergeant, co-teaches a hydroponics basics college prep class for high school students enrolled in the dual-credit Masters Program. "It's fun to teach students the skills they need to grow plants like this," he says.

Torrez was in the second graduating class of the controlled environment agriculture program (formerly known as greenhouse management) in 2014. He pursued an associate's degree in the field, followed by a certificate in algae cultivation.

"When I retired from the Army, I was looking for something to do," he says. "While I was in Iraq and Afghanistan, I saw how desperate people became. Because of the war, they couldn't grow their own food—what they were used to—and relied on handouts so they would not starve. Then I came home and saw how weather extremes and floods were affecting farmers here in the states, so I got interested in growing things in a new way."

He went to the Veterans Resource Center at the college, where he was hired to counsel other vets and help them adjust to college life. When he heard about the new agriculture program, he says, "I signed myself up."

In controlled environment agriculture, students learn the complex mixture of sciences it takes to be a successful farmer, including greenhouse design, soilless production systems, hydroponic plant growth and aquaponics. When Torrez signed up for the basic hydroponics and greenhouse design classes, the pod-shaped geodesic dome greenhouse was newly built and the college's 900-gallon aquaponics system newly installed. As a more advanced student, Torrez helped stock the aquaponics system with tilapia and then started to grow produce in the growing beds. He has witnessed the results.

"I grow vegetables in my soil garden at home, but for some plants, nothing compares to the dome. The nutrients are all right there for the plants and they grow like crazy. Look at this tomato vine—it must be 25 feet long, and it is over a year old!"

Torrez looks over at a small group of students and instructors at the other side of the greenhouse. "One of the really good things about this place is that when we find a problem, we teach the students how to fix it."

For example, in the summer of 2018, one of the older aquaponics systems had heating problems that caused diseases in the plants' roots. Last winter, cold issues killed fish. Now, controlled ag and solar plumbing students are working together to build a solar water temperature optimization project funded by a student research grant from Climate Change New Mexico.

"It's good to be able to take the books and notes we take in class and apply it to something real," says Billie Quillian, a solar technology/plumbing trades student. While Quillian is undecided about how working on this aquaponics cooling project will help her new career, she could see benefits, so she signed up for the class. "It will help my resume, saying that I worked on a research project."

Two other solar technology students, Mark Garcia and Homero Guardado, have latched on to the potential of the solar water temperature optimizing technology and are installing it on a new 3,000-gallon aquaponics system. The equipment only adds to the futuristic look of the building design—a shelter from the sun and desert.

Excited to be involved in a new way to control aqua environments, the two are building it from basic parts like small pumps, PEX tubing and water tanks. As they push the large water tank into place, Garcia looks up and says, "I really wanted to work on this project because it is all new and no one else is doing it yet." His dusty face is lined with fatigue. "I worked last night at the water treatment plant, had a nap for an hour or two, then showed up here. I'm tired, but I wouldn't miss it."

Guardado works as a photovoltaics technician and is taking classes to learn more about other solar technologies. As he was wrapping insulation around a PEX pipe, he leaned over and whispered emphatically, as if letting us in on a secret, "This system is so awesome! Can you imagine all that cooling for next to nothing?" He laughs to himself. "I just know this is going to work! Fifteen times more efficient than AC? So cool."

Both students say they want to stay close to the project for the course of its demonstration because they think this is a new skill that plumbing jobs will require.

The success of the controlled environment agriculture program puts more pressure on teachers, so Torrez now has plans to pursue a bachelor of arts in sustainability degree. He is a humble role model, and proactively reaches out to both young students and grizzled vets if he hears they are having trouble with their studies. "I like what I am doing here," he says, "and I like to teach, so I am going to see if I can combine the two at a higher level."

James Taylor is a grower, poet and dog lover who lives in Cochiti Lake. He retired from research and grant writing. Then a couple of weeks later, he woke up one morning wondering how humankind is going to survive ignorance, pestilence and hunger—so he went back to college to find out. Now he is a senior student at SFCC, learning and writing about controlled environment agriculture and how it can help in the effort to feed everyone in Northern New Mexico.

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