By Abby Spegman

The Bulletin

Seventh-graders from Pilot Butte Middle School in Bend visited two local businesses last week to see up close the science of food — and drink.

“Who here has tried kombucha before?” asked Dayna Taus from Humm Kombucha in Northeast Bend, the first stop on tour.

When about half the hands went up, Taus offered them samples of the fermented tea.

“It’s not bad, a little sour,” said Isiah Sumpter, 13. Next to him, Diego Vargas, 13, went for a third cup.

These students have been learning about plant life and organisms. Important, but not exactly relevant to most middle schoolers.

“I mean, how do you make the nitrogen cycle or the carbon cycle visible, when it’s invisible? It’s such a dry subject,” said Pilot Butte science teacher Adam King. “These kids get to see what science looks like locally. It’s not a bunch of scientists in lab coats.”

Taus talked to the class about fermentation, how brewers cool the liquid to stop the process and add flavors like coconut lime, mango passion fruit, lemon ginger. Then she pulled out a jar with the SCOBY, which stands for symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, the all-important ingredient in the fermentation process.

The kids put on gloves to poke it. Sonny Stubblefield, 12, said it looks like a wet pancake; others noted it was firmer than they expected.

Next door the class visited Volcano Veggies, an organic aquaponics farm, growing an acre’s worth of food in 80 square feet indoors without the pests and temperature extremes that are bad for crops, said owner Jimmy Sbarra.

Here is the nitrogen cycle in action. Fish in one tank create waste, which bacteria convert to nitrates. The plants — lettuce, basil and kale, grown on trays floating on the surface of the water in separate tanks — absorb the nitrates and clean the water, which cycles back to the fish tank.

“That’s the take-home point; sharing is caring,” Sbarra said.

Each student was given a worksheet where they drew a picture of the system, explained where the nitrogen comes from, what uses it and how it is stored.

After a field trip last year to Volcano Veggies, King applied for a grant to start an aquaponics system at the school with help from Volcano Veggies. It’s been up and running about a month. Eighth-graders in the school’s aquaponics club go in at lunch to check test the water and check on the fish (they are using goldfish for now).

King’s goal is for the kids to grow produce for the cafeteria, but that is a ways off. So far, their basil plants are just beginning to sprout.

— Reporter: 541-617-7837,