Learning from the ground up

The Ecological Greenhouse at Kibbutz Ein Shemer is providing youth with skills to foster a better future.

Ein Shemer greenhouse 521 (photo credit: Courtesy The Ecological Greenhouse Ein Shemer)
Ein Shemer greenhouse 521
(photo credit: Courtesy The Ecological Greenhouse Ein Shemer)
Artist Avital Geva founded the Ecological Greenhouse on the grounds of Kibbutz Ein Shemer in 1976. For students and teachers, it is known simply as The Greenhouse.
“People didn’t even use the word ‘ecology’ back then. I was working with contextual art but decided to take a break from it. I got a team together, and we asked the kibbutz for the space. We built the greenhouse, which slowly expanded until it was as big as a soccer field. At that point, we couldn’t occupy any more space, so we expanded upwards. Then we realized we had to expand downwards. We couldn’t dig a hole in the ground, so we chose to explore water,” Geva recounts.
Geva’s out-of-the-box thinking was based on a paradox: the awareness of the disastrous condition the ecology was in and deep-rooted optimism.
“Look at water. There’s no end to water. In every drop, there are the same conflicts that people have with each other. There are predators and victims, each looking out for his own interests. We teach students to recognize conflicts and then find ways to build and repair. Our task is to combine all these forces and create harmony,” he says.
“We teach Jewish students, both secular and religious; Arab students; typical and special-needs kids. They all learn from each other, even without knowing it,” says Geva. “You can call this social ecology.”
For this work, Geva received the Life Project Prize from the Culture Ministry.
Zeev Shafrir, chairman of the board at the Greenhouse, says, “The Greenhouse has been an independent nonprofit organization for the last 13 years. We serve Jewish and Arab students from the Menashe and Wadi Ara region, an area of a 20-km. radius. We have a unique system where students meet with guides and professors at a roundtable, talking as equals.”
He adds, “Primary school children also visit, but the focus is on project-based learning with middle and high school students. We have 450 local students conducting research, and every week we have about 4,000 people who come for a one-time experience. We look for students who are curious. We want to develop curiosity and excellence in every student. They gain skills in research and analysis that can extend into any field the student chooses to pursue in life.”
The Ecological Greenhouse is also popular with Taglit-Birthright and Masa programs.
Geva’s son, Noam, is the educational manager at the Greenhouse. He maps out the activities that take place there.
“Our main population are kids who return seven to 30 times to see their projects through. It can take a year or longer. Some have conducted research here for four or five years,” he says.
“Let’s imagine a group of 15 tenth-grade students who are interested in environmental sciences. The Greenhouse guides meet them. Each guide has at least a bachelor’s degree in environmental science, biology, agriculture or some other related subject and receives a salary from the organization. The kids go on to experience at least eight stages in a project. The first stage is exposure to the Greenhouse – getting to know what’s here and what’s being done. We want them to get comfortable here and work independently as soon as possible,” he explains.
“In following stages, the group splits up into teams of three, each choosing their project. Let’s say the core project is treating water. The teams have to choose either an experiment or a project. An experiment could be investigating the role of bacteria in purifying water. Or can plants help? They’ll learn to make a comparison between purification methods using bacteria, microalgae or UV radiation. The next stage is planning the experiment. Then they physically create the environment for the project. They learn how to use hammers, screwdrivers, drills or other tools to make shelves, filters or other objects they’ll need,” Noam says.
They go on to measure the results of their experiments. For this, they have to return three or four times, learning how to handle a microscope or more advanced instruments.
“I’m talking about 15-year-olds using spectrophotometers,” he stresses. “They make graphs that will become the tool for summarizing and presenting their project in front of the other teams, their guide and experts we’ve invited. Finally, we want them to understand what they did and what skills they acquired. We expect students to look forward to a new program and start planning what skills to acquire in order to execute it,” he continues.
“The main focus is on science. Take studies on microalgae. Why is this important – how will it save the world or influence the agriculture of the future? Why is it relevant to them? It might take a long time to learn about algae or water rehabilitation, and they need to stay motivated. So we plan the learning experience to be as real as possible. For example, we cooperate with a local factory that manufactures starch-based food products. Their wastewater is loaded with salt. This causes serious ecological problems in the groundwater and fields. The students research how plants or algae can remove those salts from the water, under the guidance of a professor at the Faculty of Agriculture at Rehovot. They’re working with real, hands-on systems and influencing real-life outcomes,” he says.
It sounds like the Ecological Greenhouse aims to raise a generation of scientists, but there’s a surprising conclusion.
“Their studies on microalgae, water or agriculture are important,” says Noam, “but it’s not the main issue. They’re building themselves as people with direction. A young adult that’s gone through that process knows himself better as an individual and as a team member. He or she has studied how to plan, how to work in a group, how to build a project and use building and lab instruments. How to take results and make a graph. How to compare results and act on them. How to represent themselves in front of an audience and take criticism. In the end, each one is learning about herself/himself.”
He goes on, “My own field isn’t science. I’m a musician. I have to think about who will be in my band because a band is a team. Even a soccer team needs people who work well in a group, can take criticism and seek to improve themselves. Conventional schools don’t offer this kind of thinking. We don’t want to replace schools. However, we want to offer enrichment.”
How influential has the Greenhouse idea been so far? Noam says, “We have a small budget – NIS 1 million a year. With so little money, it’s hard to track our influence. But many students have gone into agro-tech programs. Some went into hi-tech programming and created start-ups. Some went into social activism and local politics.”
It’s about self-realization and about helping young people build a better future.
The Ecological Greenhouse Ein Shemer: www.greenhouse.org.il (English page available). There are also YouTube videos in Hebrew.