Spark - Y Youth Action Labs


- By Matt Frank - Spark-Y is a Minneapolis nonprofit dedicated to educating Twin Cities’ youth about sustainable living through the use of urban agriculture programing. Topics taught by Spark-Y include aquaponics, vermicomposting, algae cultivation, and mushroom cultivation. Their hands-on teaching methodology empowers local youth and equips them with the necessary tools to positively impact the health of both people and planet. This socially and environmentally-conscious organization not only talks the talk, but walks the walk. Their tenacity, urban agriculture focus, and social entrepreneurship model is incredibly admirable, and one that brings much needed hope for a brighter future.

ORIGINS Spark-Y began under the name YEA (Young Enterprising Agents) Corps. In the mid-2000s, Founder Mary Helen Franze had been working closely with a group of passionate young middle-schoolers on a garden project and was inspired by their creativity. This in turn led to the development of a nature-based education model focused on youth empowerment and job preparation, which served as the organization’s launching point. In 2008, current Spark-Y Executive Director Zach Robinson and Founder Mary Helen Franze met at a U.S. Green Building Council networking event where the two discussed their shared interests in sustainability, entrepreneurship, and education. After initial discussions, Mary Helen Franze invited Zach to serve as a Founding Board Member of YEA Corps.

In 2009, the first YEA Corps projects began in earnest and were operated by an all volunteer Board of Directors. The following year, Mary Helen Franze stepped back capacity-wise from her role yet remained an integral member of the Board. It was during this transitional phase that Zach learned about Growing Power, a nonprofit in Milwaukee, Wisconsin focused on youth education, empowerment, and job training through the use of urban agriculture and aquaponics.

Aquaponics is highly efficient closed-loop system of agricultural production that utilizes fish waste to fertilize produce, which in turn filters and cleans water that is recirculated back into tanks where the fish live. Since water circulates throughout the system and is reused indefinitely for multiple purposes, aquaponic systems utilize far less water than traditional in-ground agricultural methods. It is a hybrid model that combines the practices of hydroponics - growing produce in fertilized water instead of soil - and aquaculture, often referred to as fish farming.

Zach was immediately blown away by aquaponics and its potential as both a sustainable agriculture production method and an educational tool for youth engagement in urban areas. In 2010, Zach pitched the idea of developing an aquaponic pilot project to the full Board. This came to fruition and turned out to be a huge success thanks in part to the Board’s previous connections with a handful of local Twin City-area schools. The pilot project was developed over the 2010-2011 school year in partnership with the Minnesota Internship Center in south Minneapolis and was implemented as an educational tool for their young students. This pilot project was the first operational aquaponics system in the state of Minnesota!

The Minnesota Internship Center project highlighted sustainability principles and began to address educational needs such as providing students hands-on opportunities while presenting them with real-world skills. Aquaponics was chosen as the first of what would become Spark-Y’s four urban agriculture programs - aquaponics, vermicomposting, algae cultivation, and mushroom cultivation. Spark-Y views these urban agriculture practices as tools for social change with the potential to positively affect our local environment and economy. Aquaponics was also initially chosen because of its ability to cut across institutional education silos since it touches on many topics at once, including math, science, ecology, engineering, and more.


The following academic school year, a second aquaponic system was created in partnership with the School of Environmental Studies, a magnet high school on the grounds of the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley, MN. During this time, the organization developed a robust sustainability curriculum to be used in tandem with their aquaponic projects. Students at the School of Environmental Studies were tasked with building an aquaponic system and developing business plans for production and sales. Students received professional titles such as Chief Operating Officer, Marketing Officer, and Chief Executive Officer, instilling within them self confidence and introducing them to real world skills. Resulting student business plans included growing dill and cucumbers aquaponically in order to produce and sell pickles and growing flowers in order to create boutonnieres for sale at the school prom.

Going into the 2013-2014 school year, YEA Corps officially changed its name to Spark-Y as a result of Board led discussions on organizational mission. The name Spark-Y stemmed from their mission to spark action among youth and ignite engagement (Spark-Y = Spark Youth). At the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year, they had six established school partnerships and had also developed a once-a-week, full-year curriculum based on a three tiered aquaponic model. This model included teaching students about aquaponic systems, helping them build and maintain a fully functional prototype, and encouraging them to sell produce grown in the system. During this time, Spark-Y also took on a few more staff members, many passionate volunteers, and a community of enthusiastic people looking to get involved. A summer Youth Sustainability Internship program was also developed that helped establish relationships with local high school and college students who remained interested in helping the organization grow further.


Spark-Y has a strong relationship with Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) who hired them to teach elective classes at Roosevelt and Edison High Schools. They’ve also partnered with MPS Culinary & Nutrition Services over the past few years to develop a timber framed greenhouse and an aquaponic system at Roosevelt High School where food grown by students is harvested, cooked, and served to students in the school’s cafeteria. This project was the city’s first garden-to-cafeteria pilot project.

Spark-Y has also partnered with the following local schools:

Southside Family Charter School (MPLS) FAIR Middle School (Crystal) Integrated Arts Academy (Chaska) St. Croix Lutheran (West St. Paul) Crossroads Elementary School (St. Paul) University of Minnesota (MSP) El Colegio Charter School (MPLS) Metro Heights Academy (Fridley) Humboldt High School (St. Paul)

In addition to their school partnerships, Spark-Y has partnered with community organizations throughout the metro to develop aquaponic, hydroponic, and permaculture-based systems. Community partnerships include Ghandi Mahal, an authentic Indian cuisine restaurant, GastroTruck, an environmentally conscious food truck, and the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization. A commercial scale aquaponic system housed in the basement of Ghandi Mahal provides fresh produce and fish to the restaurant and is used as a place where young students are taken on field trips to view the system in action. Spark-Y also partners with local groceries, restaurants, and farmers markets to sell aquaponically-grown micro greens from the systems they’ve implemented at schools and their urban ag lab in south Minneapolis. Microgreens from Spark-Y aquaponic systems are sold at Ghandi Mahal, Cafe Levain, The Lowbrow, Groundswell, and Seward Co-op.

THAT’S A WRAP! Spark-Y is an amazing organization that has begun to alter the state of youth education in the Twin Cities for the better. Their innovative use of urban agriculture practices as tools for experiential, participatory learning is an incredibly inspiring endeavor. Here’s to more engaged, environmentally and socially conscious Twin Cities youth!