Compost Education Expands Beyond Fossil Rim

Tye Chandler :
Posted February 12, 2019

The Fossil Rim Natural Resources Department has a lot to keep them busy throughout the wildlife park, but that hasn’t deterred Caitlin Pyle and Vanessa Hays from venturing into nearby Glen Rose to provide an ecofriendly education.

Several different Glen Rose Junior High science classes visited Fossil Rim’s composting facility on Feb. 1. The students have been donating their food waste (fruit, vegetables, bread) to Fossil Rim since the calendar turned to 2019, but this was a chance to actually see where it goes after they toss an apple core into the Fossil Rim recycling bin in their lunchroom.

“It is so important for them to actually see the connection of their food waste and our compost,” said Natural Resources Manager Caitlin Pyle of the visiting Glen Rose Junior High students. “You can tell them at school, but seeing the destination of the food waste is different. We have a bin at the junior high and one at the intermediate school. They can put fruits, vegetables and bread in the bins.” Pyle and Natural Resources Management Specialist Vanessa Hays hosted junior high science classes in early February as part of their ongoing education provided for multiple local school campuses.

From Square One

“Early in 2017, I had the thought that a great way to utilize our Memorandum of Understanding with Glen Rose ISD was through composting with kids in the schools,” said Pyle, natural resources manager. “I wanted to start with the younger kids who wouldn’t be as set in their ways, so I met with the science teachers and principal at Glen Rose Intermediate School, laid out my plan and asked if we could make it happen. We did our pilot program during 2017 summer school to work out logistics, but I learned you can’t have everything set up perfectly with a new program.

Caitlin Pyle and Vanessa Hays are joined by Glen Rose Junior High science teachers (from left) Charla Arendt, Brittany Carter and (far right) Rachel Truss. “These junior high teachers have been totally on board with us this year, bringing composting education into their classrooms,” said Caitlin Pyle. “We also work with Patty Snodgrass in sixth grade science.”

“Instead, you make adjustments as you go and learn on the fly. The intermediate school has a lot of pride about being the first campus to get involved with our program; the current sixth graders were our first group.”

Hays, natural resources management specialist, was hired in the summer of 2018 after learning as an intern under Pyle.

Vanessa Hays talks with students at the stage-two compost windrow. “You can see some leaves and hay, plus the color is still fairly light,” said Caitlin Pyle. “The temperature is probably 100-120 within. You start to see a bit of fungal activity, but it is still too hot for most invertebrates.”
Caitlin Pyle talks to students at the composting facility with one of Fossil Rim’s hayfields in the background. “I talked about the final-stage compost going to the hayfield, and it was good to be able to point to one of the hayfields right beside us,” Pyle said. “After the compost is fully broken down, we like to let it sit uninterrupted for a while before it goes into the field. When the time comes, our Agricultural Resources Manager Daniel Branham and his team will disperse it in the fields with a manure spreader.”

“Hiring Vanessa allowed us to expand the composting program to other campuses,” Pyle said. “When big groups come out to visit, we can split them up and teach simultaneously.”

The duo has been really pleased to see GRISD teachers and students sharing their enthusiasm.

“All of the junior high teachers have been so interested in starting this program on their campus,” Hays said. “They wanted the students out here sooner to really drive home the compost connection we now have. They communicate with us frequently, and we love talking to the teachers. They recently implemented a plastic recycling bin and are excited to utilize that, too.”

The eggshells are from Fossil Rim’s Safari Camp kitchen. “Wood is high in carbon, and it takes longer to break down,” said Caitlin Pyle. “It’s okay if a bit is in our compost, but we don’t want a lot.”

Composting has been in play at Fossil Rim for a long time, but things have really ramped up in the last two years.

“Composting used to be very casual here, as it was foremost a means to utilize the animal manure produced at Fossil Rim,” Pyle said. “I was told that about 10 man hours per year used to be invested into our compost. We have 114-plus acres of hay fields and an oat field, so even now we still cannot produce enough compost to fill that entire demand, but we continue to work on that.

Vanessa Hays and Garrett Gosdin bring some of the junior high’s food waste to the stage-one windrow. “That’s our waste conversion area in the background,” said Caitlin Pyle. “That particular week, we collected 110 pounds of food waste in three days from the junior high.”

“When our support services department has used all of our compost, that’s when they supplement commercial fertilizer for the remaining acres. They also use our compost for erosion control to grow Bermuda grass in certain areas and beautification projects. For example, when we got a new route in many places as the Gosdin Scenic Drive was built, that left the former route as bare soil where pavement used to be.

“We wanted to reclaim those areas back to nature, so support services works in conjunction with natural resources to put grass seed and compost there to repair those portions of the pastures. A lot of traditional zoos aren’t able to compost like we do due to lack of space, but I’m grateful we have so much land available.”

Delving Into The Art Of Decomposition

What literally goes into Fossil Rim compost?

“The big three are food waste, manure, and hay,” Hays said. “Occasionally, we get some leaves or grass clippings from landscaping. Branches in small quantities aren’t a problem, but you want to avoid including too much wood because it’s hard to break down.”

The first step in education is keeping the students’ attention. “If we keep our energy level up, we keep the students engaged and curious to learn more,” said Caitlin Pyle. “Vanessa (Hays) and I both taught biology labs at Tarleton State University as graduate assistants, and I always took pride in getting that 7:25 a.m. class awake and ready to work.”
A compost thermometer provides a nonintrusive check on the temperature of the inside of a compost windrow.

Hays goes to the school campuses twice a week to collect food waste from each of the two Fossil Rim bins. Pyle estimated that 60-65 percent of the food waste that goes into the compost is from the schools, while 30 percent is from the Overlook Café and 5-10 percent is from Fossil Rim’s Safari Camp kitchen. Cruz Espino from Fossil Rim’s Support Services Department does daily collection from the café and camp kitchen.

“We need a variety of materials in our compost,” Hays said. “We love working closely with Glen Rose ISD on that. Not only do we keep their food out of a landfill, but it provides nutrients for our compost windrows. It’s just as important as the manure we get from our animals in our efforts to produce nutrient-rich compost for use in our hay fields.”

Vanessa Hays discusses a compost thermometer with students. “Just as a medical thermometer measures the temperature of a human to help evaluate how healthy he or she is, a compost thermometer lets us know what is going on in the compost pile,” said Caitlin Pyle. “The higher the temperature, the more bacterial activity is occurring. It needs to reach 131 degrees Fahrenheit for five-plus days to kill weed seeds, bad bacteria or any other living organisms we don’t want in there. On this particular day, the stage one ranged from 120-140 degrees. Meanwhile, stage four was 80-90, and the final stage was about 45.”
Manure, alfalfa, hay and orange peels converge in a compost windrow. “That is stage one, so it’s easy to see the separate materials,” said Caitlin Pyle. “Vanessa will blend it all together with the backhoe.”

The compost facility has five windrows – long lines of material heaped up by a machine; stage 1-4 windrows can be up to 120 feet long, while the windrow of finished compost is much smaller. During the stages, the material is going through a progression of decomposition.

“We bring the food waste, animal care brings the manure and hay that has been used for bedding, and it all goes in the stage-one windrow,” Hays said. “Using the backhoe, I manipulate all of the windrows, turn the compost, and I’m essentially the maintenance keeper of the compost to make sure all materials are breaking down properly in a timely fashion.”

Vanessa Hays uses the backhoe to manipulate Fossil Rim’s compost windrows, which can reach 120 feet long. The compost needs to be turned over periodically to stimulate even decomposition of the materials.

Weather permitting, Hays will generally flip the windrows once a week if the backhoe is available. She started from scratch on her backhoe skills and has worked to be proficient.

“The windrows are so long that the volume of material during full windrow reconstruction, or just turning over an existing windrow, calls for the backhoe,” Hays said. “Most frequently, I’m flipping a windrow to get the hay and other materials from on top toward the bottom so that it will all decompose evenly.”

Pyle is often occupied elsewhere, as the natural resources department is multi-faceted.

Vanessa Hays discusses a stage-one compost windrow with the junior high students. “We can’t be with the students as often as their teachers, so when we are together it is important to prepare them to be able to compost on their own if that’s something they want to do,” said Caitlin Pyle.

“We are responsible for the compost windrows; educating the public about all aspects of our department, including working closely with Glen Rose ISD; we oversee wastewater and also water quality; we work with Agriculture Resources Manager Daniel Branham to help make our fields produce quality hay,” Hays said. “Caitlin and I are a great team; she does fantastic on the education side of compost, while I do more of the actual caretaking of the facility. I’ll ask her advice sometimes, because you evaluate how (well) each windrow is decomposing and make decisions about what sections need to be moved to a new stage. Then, when the compost reaches its final stage, we need a plan for where it is headed.”

Holding Attention And Stressing Retention

Having taught the art of composting on multiple school campuses, Pyle has learned to craft the message based on her audience.

“That’s stage-three compost I’m sitting on, so it’s mostly soil,” said Caitlin Pyle. “You can’t be afraid to get dirty out here.”

“We have a certain approach with third graders, but in the future, we want to expand this all the way up to Glen Rose High School,” she said. “At that point, we can really go in-depth on topics like landfill diversion; 22 percent of material in landfill is food waste. The junior high students are learning about microhabitats, so I explained the different microhabitats within the compost windrows. We can try to compliment what their science teachers are covering.”

Speaking of the teachers, seventh grade science teacher Charla Arendt was one of the educators to visit with the students in early February.

“The sixth graders came to our campus with some compost experience from their days at the intermediate school, and we wanted to continue their learning at the junior high level,” Arendt said. “In the seventh grade, we do a lot of environmental science and talking about our impact as humans on the environment. That’s a global discussion, but we definitely want to make a positive impact here in Glen Rose.”

The closest pile is stage-four compost, then stage three where Caitlin Pyle’s group is and then stage two where Vanessa Hays is talking with students. “When we aerate stage four and come back the next day – if the inner temperature is the same as the air temperature, it tells us there is no bacterial activity and the compost has reached the final stage,” said Caitlin Pyle. “If the inner temperature is warmer than the air temperature, decomposition is still underway.”
This is actinomycetes on hay in a compost windrow. “It’s a high-level bacterium that is a really important part of the composting process,” said Caitlin Pyle. “It’s mostly found in stage two and three. When you’ve smelled soil and thought it was pleasant, actinomycetes was the cause. I taught the students a song about that term in their classroom, and when I brought it up here, they recognized the word.”

Arendt observed as Pyle and Hays separated the visiting students into two groups and headed to different windrow stages.

“I think they’ve done an excellent job,” she said of the duo. “They want to keep students engaged and give them as much information as possible. It’s been fun, as a teacher, to see somebody else interact with the students that way and share their knowledge. The students often comment about how long the composting process takes and all the work that goes into it.

“I think they respect the effort these ladies put into it here at Fossil Rim, but in the students’ daily lives we want them to be thinking about how they can be composting at home, and it’s not just something for them to learn about.”

“Some of the students were very eager to answer questions,” said Vanessa Hays. “One girl got an answer wrong and said she shouldn’t have asked, but I told her being interested about learning is the most important thing.”

Arendt hopes experiences like this help mold the ecofriendly mindset of the students as they grow.

“I think these visits to come see Fossil Rim’s composting operation will be impactful,” she said. “We have the Fossil Rim (food waste) bins at school, and it’s neat to see the students wanting to contribute and thinking about what materials can go in the bin. Our school district is all about the students learning things they can do in their daily lives that they can continue even after graduation – gardening, composting, and generally how they can make a positive impact on the environment instead of a negative one.”

The progressive environmental mindset of these Glen Rose schools is not lost on Pyle.

“This composting program has the entire junior high thinking about how to reduce their (collective) carbon footprint,” Pyle said. “Destination Imagination is a nationwide (volunteer-led, educational nonprofit organization that teaches ‘21st-century’ skills to school students using collaborative problem-solving challenges), and the junior high students chose composting as the subject of their service project video. They created their own version of our mascot, ‘Ernie the Worm’. (In late January,) Vanessa and I went to their school to help build worm composting bins.”

“Sometimes, we open up a section of a windrow to see how it is doing on the inside,” said Caitlin Pyle. “The darker section in this stage-three windrow that you see near our group had been pulled up a couple of days earlier. For each junior high class that visited, I opened up a new windrow section so they could see the decomposition.”

In addition to branching out to the high school, Pyle and Hays are in discussion about where they will take the students at these current campuses beyond composting.

“Vanessa and I have worked hard to build a repertoire with these students,” Pyle said. “When the kids say ‘hello’ to us on their campus, it’s pretty special. We are looking to expand to upcycling and recycling education, as well as wastewater and water conservation education. When the entire third grade makes its annual visit to Fossil Rim each spring, the natural resources department has become a part of that day.”

Effective teaching is aided by a teacher’s own interest.

“The students were showing each other the finished compost and talking about how it looks and feels compared to traditional soil; I’m so proud of the interest they’ve taken in this,” said Caitlin Pyle.
“These girls are so excited about composting; it’s encouraging to see that enthusiasm,” said Caitlin Pyle.

“We are trying to drive home the point that natural resources are not something that kids should overlook,” Hays said. “It’s an interesting branch of science about how we can all improve our earth, and it’s neat to explore the different ways we can teach them about it.”

Padding The Professional Skillset

Pyle is getting a lot more done around Fossil Rim now that she has a right-hand (wo)man, and Hays has been accumulating knowledge and skills daily.

“Vanessa started as an intern for natural resources, and she was such a valuable contributor that I championed to get her hired,” Pyle said. “We are a great team. Our different teaching styles allow us to reach a greater variety of people.

“I quickly urged her to try teaching a group on her own, and she’s continually improved at captivating her audience. She proved that when these junior high classes visited, and I told her afterwards how impressed I was with the strides she’s made.”

“We have tested these bags and they break down great,” said Caitlin Pyle. “I like that they are a nice green tint, which may help you think ecofriendly. We started using those in the schools this year, and they make it a lot easier on Vanessa (Hays) to transport the compost here. Instead of having to empty a heavy, smelly bag, she can just throw the entire bag onto the compost windrow.”
“It’s neat for the kids to see one of our compostable bags months down the road toward its decomposition,” said Caitlin Pyle.

The office of the natural resources department is right beside support services, and these women have taken the opportunity to learn all sorts of skills when their busy schedules allow.

“We definitely have a good relationship with the support services department, and they love teaching us new skills, because it means they don’t have to do it for us next time,” Pyle said. “Vanessa learned how to weld and made us a stepstool for the wastewater plant. We like to think we can do anything we set our mind to, and we take pride in being self-sufficient when possible.”

Caitlin Pyle and Vanessa Hays visited Glen Rose Junior High to help students in the Destination Imagination program build worm composting bins.

Like Pyle did after she transitioned over from the education department, Hays is all about accumulating on-the-job skills.

“I thoroughly enjoy increasing my knowledge and skills using larger machines such as the Ditch Witch, skid steer and backhoe to complete projects for natural resources,” Hays said. “My proficiency in power tools has also increased, which is quite fun. I hope any young woman out there will strive to try new things and discover they can do just as well in their job as anyone else.”

Caitlin Pyle talks about the presence of actinomycetes bacteria during the decomposition process.

Whether they are the teacher or the student, the ladies of Fossil Rim’s Natural Resources Department are all about education and the next enlightening experience.

-Tye Chandler, Marketing Associate 

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