Learning About Composting

Students can create a compost pile to learn about the decomposition process.

By Shay Kornfeld

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Learning About Composting

There are quite a few creative ways you can have your students learn about environmental issues. You can discuss topics involving energy resources, alternative power sources, or trash-related issues. For example, when having your students delve into trash and recycling topics, you could have them talk about composting.

The Road to Composting

In areas throughout the United States there are large-scale municipal composting facilities. The waste that is diverted away from garbage facilities can reduce disposal fees and free up much needed space. Composting facilities also provide a quick and easy way to turn trash into reusable material. It can take as little as six weeks to create fresh organic compost that can be used on farms and gardens everywhere.

How to Introduce the Concept of Composting

Before talking about the way composting works, you should have students list the types of natural materials that can be recycled and turned into nutritious soil. Students may be surprised at some of the things that can be used in a compost heap, including dead plants, lawn clippings, and cardboard.

When to Start Your Composting Project

Fall is a perfect time to start this project, as there are lots of leaves, tree-trimmings, and grass clippings to collect. You can tell students that materials are turned into compost through decomposition. This happens naturally, however, the process can be accelerated, if it is done right. Have students bring food scraps to school in a plastic bag to contribute to the compost pile. They should not bring in meat or dairy items. As a class, you can make a list on a t-chart of what will decompose and what won't. Then you can set up your compost area.

  • Find a suitable outdoor location in the schoolyard for a four foot compost pile. You can design the composting area using wood planks, concrete blocks, fencing, or hay barrels. You can even just dig a hole in the ground. It has to, however, be a design that will retain heat.
  • Line the bottom of the compost bin with twigs and sticks to create a drainage system. 
  • Add a six to eight inch layer of organic material (shredded material will speed up the process), then add soil/manure, and repeat.  Keep layers moist. You could even add tea bags to make the process go more quickly.

Having Students Analyze the Composting Process 

Students then can take turns each week, turning the soil and mixing it up. Have them keep a record of the decomposition process in a scientific journal. They can enter the date when organic material was added, when the soil was mixed, and what it looked and smelled like, etc . . . Students can identify the mixture of items that contributes to decomposition, what works best, and discuss the scientific process that makes this chemical reaction occur.

When spring arrives, the class will have wonderful, rich soil to plant their very own vegetables. Use the fine soil for growing vegetables at the school, the bigger pieces that may not have broken down yet, can be used as mulch to prevent weed growth.

    After the project is complete, have students share their research with the principal, other classes in the school, or even with a local newspaper. What follows are more composting lessons.

    Composting Lesson Plans:

    Composting

    Students learn how to start a compost bin at home.

    Composting in Our School

    Students view an online slideshow of the decomposition process and learn what materials can be added to their own compost bin.

    Collecting Compost

    Students learn how to collect compost by observing a composting box and creating a food diagram.

    Cycles of Matter and Composting

    Students learn the life cycle of compost and the role different decomposers play in the process. 

    Compost in a Milk Carton

    Students duplicate a compost bin by creating their own miniature one from a milk carton. They view and write about the results.