Cuttings to jelly, RMS-CES students learn the ‘science’ of grapes

Gigi Grabowski enthusiastically displays a bunch of grapes grown at RMS-CES. (Submitted photos)
Gigi Grabowski enthusiastically displays a bunch of grapes grown at RMS-CES. (Submitted photos)

Corina Sarsland’s seventh-grade science class recently enjoyed the results of a two-year experiment by tasting jelly made from grapes grown on the Rockford Middle School – Center for Environmental Studies campus, planted just two years ago from cuttings.

Board Member Chuck Tryon has been a driving force behind planting grapes at the school. He has worked with many other growers and shared his knowledge about grapes with students.

“Chuck gives his time, anticipates student needs and gives our kids real-world experience and ideas for future careers in agriculture,” Sarsland said.

The initial experiment started when Tryon spent a day with students explaining how a spectrometer was used to measure the sugar levels in grapes and how the U.S. Department of Agriculture uses specific levels in their regulations of grapes. That experience led to grape cuttings experiments in the classroom, a planting of a school vineyard and, finally, a jelly-tasting experience this fall.

Jackson Hellman shows off some freshly made grape jelly
Jackson Hellman shows off some freshly made grape jelly

The main focus of the grape cuttings experiment has been inquiry. Sarsland wanted her students to question the best way to grow grapes from cuttings. Because the cuttings look like small sticks, students are in disbelief about their ability to grow fruit. These dormant cuttings were used in experiments, and students used different techniques to encourage growth, such as fertilizer, music, artificial light and sunlight. Students tracked their plants’ growth on data charts.

During that first year, six plants really took off and grew, flourishing in the new vineyard. Students from the first year met with the next year’s students to discuss their experiment during a “Grape-ology” celebration run by Sarsland and the science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, Literacy class. Students used their journals to give advice to the next grade level of students who would be carrying on the seventh-grade grape tradition.

This year, Tryon, Sarsland and the seventh-grade students harvested a bushel and a half of grapes from the vineyard, as well as a pail full of wild grapes that were growing on the RMS-CES campus.

All students in the past three years have participated in the grape experiment, from hypothesizing about growing methods, planting the cuttings, collecting data and harvesting the grapes. Tryon took the harvested grapes home to make jelly with his wife, Annette. They made three and half gallons of grape jelly.

It took a group effort to make this harvest possible; many other community members and school staff have also been involved in the project.

District Buildings and Grounds Director Maureen Mullen helped with the location and construction of the vineyard on the campus, while Gordy Thomas, district resident and former school board member, came to the school with his tractor and soil to create a space for the cuttings to grow. Tryon and his wife also came to construct the space for the plants, adding posts and wires onto which  the vines would grow.

Sarsland enjoys this program that has continued into its third year.

“The heart of this is exploratory learning,” she said, “We work with what the students want to learn, and we give them room to experiment.”

The middle school students have enjoyed the sweet and delicious result of their hard work.

For more information on this or any program at the Rockford Middle School – Center for Environmental Studies, contact the office at 763-477-5831..