By Rodolfo Morales, Ph.D., Horticulture and Ecology Educator

This month, we’re wrapping up the first semester of our new Rainbow Academy academic approach, and the educational accomplishments of the Ranchers have been phenomenal. I’m amazed with their intellect and capabilities as we’ve moved through some challenging subjects over the past few months. They have shared their findings with each other, and everyone has been enriched by the personal and the group experience.

Developing “Self Esteem” among Adults with Developmental Disabilities

The “Rainbow Academy” model unifies and broadens the course offerings at Rainbow Acres. In past years, I’ve taught many Horticulture/Ecology classes, but I decided this year to take on one of the new Life Skills classes. I was particularly drawn to teach the course focusing on “Self Esteem” for adults with developmental disabilities. I thought that helping the Ranchers enhance their self esteem would enable them tackle other new challenges. Our new Life Skills classes are part of Rainbow Acres’ participation in “Project Discovery”, which was created by Education Associates and is a nationally-renowned curriculum of courses designed specifically for persons with disabilities. We are implementing several modules created by the company.

I didn’t know what to expect because this was my first time to teach the Ranchers about an essential living skill: developing the self-esteem necessary to seek their goals in life. Wow! While I realized this could be a promising course, I had no idea how much impact the class would have on the participants! The three months of focus created a high level of energy and enthusiasm among the Ranchers to learn more about how to pursue and achieve their life goals. I believe this will lead them into new pursuits to come.

Learning About Self Esteem as a Multi-Faceted Topic

Each Rancher explored a specific aspect of realizing self-esteem and shared their findings with the group through a personal PowerPoint presentation they created. For example, Rancher Carol Curtis’ project focused on the power of self-confidence to better achieve daily activities, and short and long-term goals. Her presentation at the Worden-Taber Center inspired a rich discussion among the Ranchers and staff.

As a result, Carol was invited to give her PowerPoint presentation at the All-Staff Meeting in April, where she inspired many staff members through the contents of her talk and the supreme sense of self-confidence she demonstrated in front of a very large group of staff members from all areas on the ranch. Amazing!

Another Rancher, Chipeta Difani, worked on a project that related self-esteem to the power of emotions, while Rancher Daniel Weisbin focused on how too much self-confidence can be detrimental to achieving goals.

Gaining Experience with Soil Ecosystems and the Environment

In terms of Horticulture and Ecology, the Ranchers could take “Soil Ecosystems” or ‘Landscapes and the Environment.” These classes enhanced the Ranchers’ understanding of natural resources and the functions of natural ecosystems. In the soils class, students deepened their knowledge on soil and plant ecology as pillars to sustainable environmental management. They learned theory in the classroom and gained practical knowledge through sessions at the greenhouse and areas near Rainbow Acres.

Because soils and their living environment are essential to life on earth, the course focused on the physical, chemical and biological processes of soil formation. Major emphasis was placed on understanding how soil organisms such as insects, worms, bacteria and fungi are involved in biological processes that help build nutritious soils in both natural and agricultural environments. Students gained an overall understanding of soil life diversity and its functions that contribute to sustaining soil fertility in the long term and how improved management of soil minerals can enhance the availability of crucial nutrients for optimum plant growth.

Addressing topics from Early Earth to Sustainable Agriculture

Perhaps the most exciting part of each course is when the Ranchers deliver PowerPoint presentations on their topics, providing oral presentations to the class and fielding questions from the group. For example, Daniel Weisbin researched and presented on processes of “early earth soil formation.” He explained how intense collision of asteroids and comets with early earth brought so much water that accumulated over time, forming rivers and oceans as the planet cooled. Running water was then a key factor to form soils because rocks tumble along river banks and break up into pebbles, gravel and, ultimately, into sand, silt and clay.

Rancher Dale Czarnecki told us how volcanic eruptions brought nutrient-rich magma to the surface from the earth’s core. Magma at the surface turned into lava that solidified into rock, which then weathered over millions of years, releasing all the nutrients needed to sustain life on earth.

Rancher Chipeta Difani focused on how fungi play an important role by decomposing organic compounds and also by holding soil particles together into unique structures that allow for better air and water circulation, which helps sustain other soil lifeforms. Chipeta explained how soil fungi networks connect with roots and help plants to explore nutrients in areas beyond the root zone. Plants benefit with more mineral nutrients flowing through fungi, and in exchange, provide sugars to fungi through their root exudates.

Lastly, Rancher Rob Mills presented an integrated understanding of soil formation processes and soil biological activity as a basis to implement sustainable ecological farming. He mentioned he has collected and dumped all the organic residues from Rainbow Acres’ homes for over nine years and that this class allowed him to learn that, once in the soil, the kitchen waste is eaten by all kinds of organisms, giving out byproducts that contain nutrients that are readily available for plants to grow.

After giving their presentations to the class, this group of Ranchers was invited to present their projects at the Worden-Taber Center where more than 30 of them were delighted to listen, within just one hour, a compilation of the students’ knowledge learned during the previous three months.

Summer Courses Will Address Plant Nutrition … and Bullying

Rainbow Academy’s course series will continue this summer with emphasis on mineral nutrition of plants in relation to interactions at the root-soil interface, mechanisms of nutrient uptake, and plant metabolism. Crops need plenty of nutrients for quality production and optimal yield. Therefore, this class will illustrate how improved management of soil minerals can enhance the availability of nutrients for optimum plant growth.

The “Self Esteem” class is being continued during the summer and will expand to include the “Bullying” curriculum from Project Discovery as well. I’m looking forward to seeing where the paths of the Ranchers take them as we move forward, and how their enhanced sense of self-awareness will benefit their progress.

Besides teaching Horticulture/Ecology (and now Life Skills) classes, I’m also starting a Spanish course during the Summer term. Seven enthusiastic Ranchers are attending this class. We start with the basics of Spanish grammar. I’m looking forward to another exciting experience with our Ranchers!