WALLA WALLA -- Weaving between rows of warm, dark earth, a group of Green Park Elementary students were on a mission.
"Right now we're doing a scavenger hunt for waste in the compost piles," said Colleen Chamberlain, a third-grade teacher at Green Park and director of the school's first Green Park Summer Academy.
To highlight a weeklong focus on the environment, the students went on a field trip to the compost facility at the city's landfill on July 14. There, students learned how natural waste like cut grass, leaves, brush and other yard trimmings are piled, turned and watered over time to become rich organic matter for plants and gardens.
Green Park students got to see the composting process in the many rows at the facility -- and dig their gloved hands into the warm material -- as part of a summer enrichment program being offered at the school.
The Green Park Summer Academy was open to students who will be in second through fifth grades this fall. Chamberlain said Green Park Principal Mike Lambert kicked off the idea of offering a summer program, and Green Park teachers built on that idea to launch the summer academy.
About 80 students were invited to participate, and about 60 have been attending the classes, which began June 27 and runs through Monday. The summer academy is a type of intervention, meant to support students who might need additional help with academic and social growth.
Chamberlain said the academy was guided by approaches presented by John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist, author, and specialist in childhood brain development.
Medina spoke in Walla Walla earlier this year in presentations that were attended by all Walla Walla Public Schools teachers.
Medina emphasizes the need for exercise and movement to support learning. From that idea, lessons with lots of work outside the classroom shaped the Green Park programming.
"The idea behind it was a hands-on learning experience," Chamberlain said.
Each week, students focus on a new topic. Before the environment, the students learned about flying and aviation. Their field trip during that lesson took them to the Walla Walla Regional Airport.
Each day, the students work in small groups and rotate through stations that use art, physical education, science, a readers theater, nutrition and music while approaching the week's subject.
Spending time outside the school is also key. There was a goal to take a weekly field trip.
Chamberlain said students walk to the Walla Walla Public Library once a week. The program's fourth- and fifth-graders were to tour Whitman College this week.
On the landfill visit, students learned compost doesn't need sophisticated machinery or exotic materials to take form. Just a few key ingredients, water, and time.
The green yard-waste bins that are an option for city residents end up at the facility, and their contents turned into compost. But despite green waste guidelines, some unsuitable items are bound to find their way into the compost piles -- thus, the scavenger hunt.
Students wore light blue gloves to dig their hands into the large piles and clear away anything that couldn't be used to make compost -- like a tattered baseball cap discovered by one student.
Besides keeping the compost free of litter, it must be cared for and treated.
"Do you guys remember how to make compost? Do you remember how to take care of it?" asked Donna Tisher, the compost facility operator who took students on a tour of the facility.
"You have to feed it and make sure it's happy," answered River Sanders, 9.
Although feeding is not necessary, watering, turning and tending to the compost are key steps. Then, there is the wait.
The brown piles that began as green waste must sit for 120 days before becoming compost. At the facility, the long rows are watered by a special water truck, and turned with the operation of a front loader.
"These rows are almost ready," Tisher said. "They're 101 days old."
The compost piles are also warm. Compost can reach a temperature of almost 160 degrees. Tisher explained that just over 130 degrees, any fecal matter dies off. And having clean, healthy compost is essential.
Sanders, whose father is a teacher at the school, said he was surprised by the intense heat each compost pile holds.
"I never thought compost would be that hot," he said.
Fifth-grader Mattie Kapocias, 10, also learned a lot from the visit.
"I don't really like to get dirty, but it was really interesting to see how it's made, and how it turns a big pile of green stuff into a big pile of nutritious soil," she said.
Alesia Kamyshanov, 10, said she was fascinated by the work of bugs in the compost.
"There's a billion of them in one bunch," she said.
The landfill visit wrapped up with each student getting to take home a bag of dark, finished compost.
Amanda Loney, 10, had plans to use her bag of healthy compost to help some struggling plants at her home.
"I'm going to take some of it and put it by the watermelons I'm growing," she said.