The height of the broccoli stem was deceiving.
The plant's sudden growth spurt certainly made it look more impressive than the other stubby sprouts at the back of the Alternative Learning Center classroom in Dubuque, Iowa. But the rapid ascension was actually a sign of sun-starved distress.
"What do you do when you want something?" social-studies teacher Tim Hitzler asked his sociology students. "You reach for it."
With spring approaching, Hitzler's students -- with a little help from Dubuque's Master Gardeners -- are adopting an unorthodox approach to learning sociological principles. By cultivating the school's first on-site garden, the novice gardeners will learn about collaboration, problem-solving and the importance of community involvement.
"The idea is to start off somewhat small here and build up to (a larger garden)," Hitzler said. "We have a plan in place for keeping kids involved."
Laura Klavitter, a horticulture expert with Dubuque County Iowa State Extension and coordinator of the local Master Gardeners, has worked with Hitzler's class. Klavitter told students that the spindly plants likely weren't capable of standing up to wind and rain.
"We don't want to be planting weak plants outside just to begin with," Klavitter said.
Fortunately, students are working with a wide variety of seeds. Peppers, tomatoes, carrots and cabbage all are sprouting slowly under grow lights.
The enthusiasm for the project is obvious, Hitzler said. Several students have taken on leadership roles, the Telegraph Herald reports .
One student has assumed the role of the class public relations specialist, and another is looking for ways to "crowdfund" the garden. Noah Balayti has offered to make T-shirts for project participants.
"I just recently came to ALC at the start of this term," Balayti said. "Being at (Dubuque Senior High School previously), I've never seen this many people work together. And that's a public school. This is an alternative school. It's just kind of cool to see this many people working together on one thing."
Andre Cunningham said he wasn't really a "garden type of guy" at first. But he said the class has made him a believer and he will look for ways to continue developing his horticultural skills.
"I'm pretty interested in the whole thing," he said. "I might try it out (after the class ends). It's always good to eat fresh things."
Dubuque City Council Member Lynn Sutton has lent her Master Gardener expertise to Hitzler's students.
Sutton said gardening skills can help students become more self-sufficient.
"We're teaching them about being sustainable, growing their own foods," Sutton said. "You don't need to run to the fast foods. You can prepare your own. And it will be better for you and taste better."
Hitzler said he hopes the garden will become a "cross-curricular" activity. Students in art, science, math and physical-education classes all can learn something, he said.
"With language arts, you could do creative writing on gardening. You could do technical writing on gardening. As far as economics class, you could do stuff with branding and marketing," Hitzler said. "To be truly a school garden, it needs to be cross-curricular and (have) everyone involved in it."--Ben Jacobson, Telegraph Herald