“Empowering learners by awakening their curiosity and passion to transform themselves and the world.” That’s the mission at Odyssey STEM Academy (@OdysseyPUSD) in Paramount USD, a small school district just east of Compton in southern Los Angeles County.

With a lot of community input, the two-year-old school was founded by Keith Nuthall and Becky Perez to demonstrate the potential of compelling community-connected learning in an urban school district.

Community conversations led to a set of design principles for the new school: equity, learner-centric, authentic work, learning beyond classroom walls, and family engagement. The Seed To Table program led by Paul Hudak exemplifies these principles. Odyssey students plan, plant, tend to, study, harvest, cook, and share the bounty of a great garden program that has a rich backstory.

An Environmental Odyssey 

Paul Hudak grew up in upstate New York and got his first job picking berries at a local farm. “Working with the earth spoke to me, even at the early age of 14,” said Hudak.

After pursuing a degree in elementary education, Hudak knew he needed to pursue his passion for organic agriculture. He moved to western Oregon to pursue an education in sustainable agriculture and lived in a yurt in the woods with no electricity or running water while learning the tools of the trade on a well-known organic farm.

He spent 2000 living and working on family farms in Finland, Belgium, France and Italy and learned more about how different cultures practice sustainable agriculture.

After starting an organic farm and then one of the first Community Supported Agriculture programs, Hudak moved to Portland and began working at Terra Nova, a hands-on, half-day farm experience in the Beaverton School District. Students earn science and elective credits while participating in sustainable farming, engineering, and practicing social responsibility. They turned an unused two-acre baseball field and open space into a student-managed organic farm and integrated academic subjects into every garden project. The program produced food for 28 schools, employed over 30 students and sold food to restaurants in Portland.

In 2012, Hudak moved to Malibu to work at the famous MUSE School, where he elevated the Seed To Table (STT, #SeedToTable) program focused on organic gardening, plant-based diet, sustainability practices, water conservation and environmentalism. He grew the Kindergarten to eighth grade program substantially and designed and implemented the STT program for the high school, which opened in 2014. The team documented their success and began sharing the program with schools internationally.

After six great years in the well-heeled Malibu hills, Hudak took the Seed to Table program to Odyssey in Paramount, a lower-income, mostly Hispanic community.

From day one, Odyssey scholars have been immersed in Idea Labs designed to awaken their curiosity and passion for transforming themselves and the world. Acting as bioengineers, scientists and designers, scholars take cues from nature as a way of enhancing existing technologies and inventing new ones.

Hudak works with all 140 tenth graders, teaching them about environmental sustainability and climate change. “We talk about our roles as humans making solutions and what we can do; we talk about where we have come from and where we are headed,” said Hudak.

The once hardscrabble back of the school property now has a 25-by-70 foot greenhouse that serves as a lab and production space. Waste from the tilapia fish fertilizes the aquaponic garden.

Students built and decorated 30 raised beds that have over 100 different varieties of herbs, vegetables and flowers. Students are choosing what to grow; they measure soil composition and develop plans for natural fertilization. A school-wide composting program supports the garden. Signaling real student ownership, volunteers came in during the holiday break to tend to the gardens.

Odyssey scholars learn to cook using the vegetables they grow in gardens on their school’s property. Image by Paul Hudak.

Students learn to cook what they grow as part of the Seed to Table program. They bring what they learn home—and bring their community into the school.

As part of the Big Picture Learning network, Odyssey scholars learn through internships each year. Realizing there would be a big surplus of food from the garden, a group of students sought out Food Finder, a national nonprofit (launched by a Georgia high school student) that fights food insecurity. They created an internship that included donating the surplus harvest and getting it to families in need (see featured image).

“Something magical happens when our learners prepare the soil, plant a seed, watch it grow, and feed their community,” Principal Keith Nuthall said. “They become passionate about contributing to something bigger than themselves”

An Environmental Sustainability Coordinator like Paul Hudak can transform your community’s view of food, reduce food waste, raise awareness of good nutrition, improve youth eating habits, and contribute to sustainable lifestyles.

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This blog was originally published on Forbes.

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