McNary biology teacher earns top SKEF grant

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Jessica Graham accepts the SKEF grant check alongside SKEF board member Chuck Swank and McNary principal John Honey. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

It was her students’ waning knowledge of plant life that prompted McNary High School biology teacher Jessica Graham to apply for a grant from the Salem-Keizer Education Foundation.

“Every year we seem to have students that are more and more disconnected from plants,” she said. “More and more are living in apartments or houses with small backyards. They don’t know where the food comes from. They don’t realize that a houseplant they have at home actually comes from the tropics and grows much bigger.”

At the same time, she would hear from other teachers how excited their students would get to watch a bean grow from a seed. Then a student came to her last year and asked if she would help him grow garlic.

“He did and asked if we could do more hands-on work like that in the classroom,” Graham said.

The school is also home to a greenhouse that wasn’t being used to its potential and the combination of the two got her thinking about what might be possible with a little bit of money.

Graham applied for a SKEF grant and was awarded $1,834 to establish a hands-on botany and controlled environment agriculture project during a ceremony at McNary last week. The grant was also honored as the Susan Gleason Award, which is given to high scoring applications that “symbolize the true innovation that Susan Gleason brought to her role as an educator and a founder of SKEF,” said Krina Lemons, SKEF executive director.

Graham plans to use the money to breathe new life into the McNary greenhouse and refit it with hydroponic equipment that will give students a chance to see how new technology is affecting old agricultural practices.

“I want to be able to do as many experiments as we can to show the students how and why plants matter,” Graham said. “We’ll be looking at effects of pollution in plants and the ripple effects it has in their students lives, then we’ll be doing hydoponics and look at how agriculture in our area is growing.”

By the end of the academic year, she hopes the greenhouse will be home to plants from a variety of biomes, such as desert and tropics, to show how plants grow and adapt to their climates.

Other Keizer recipients of SKEF grants were: Jeremy Everitt of McNary, $817 for students to develop online portfolios of work and receive interactive feedback; Karen Hammerquist of Cummngs Elementary School, $420 to purchase books that will increase student scientific knowledge by reading rich vocabulary and comprehending diverse themes; Kelly Dougherty of Whiteaker Middle School, the school will receive $2,000 worth of new books from Scholastic.

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