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Teaching science through farming

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The Youth Farm Initiative at the Felege Hiywot Center is not only youth led, but the program is providing them with hands-on STEM education as well as teaching life skills that may be useful as they grow.

Ethiopan-born Aster Bekele, founder of the Felege Hiywot Center, immigrated to Indiana in August of 1973. Bekele noticed something significant missing in her new surroundings.

“Coming from Ethiopia, it didn’t matter how many people were around me, I couldn’t see anyone that looked like me,” Bekele said.

Feeling homesick, Bekele filled the void by talking to local children about her experiences in Ethiopia. She noticed the children were often distracted by leisure activities instead of doing homework after school, so she started an after-school program to resolve the issue.

The program, located in the Martindale-Brightwood area, was off to a rough start.

“I really wanted them to love science, but I was doing it with science books and other mainstream forms of education,” Bekele said. “I couldn’t get them connected. I thought to myself, ‘What should I do? I’m trying everything.’ And then, finally, a girl in my program asked me ‘Can we plant flowers?’”

For Bekele, this moment of clarity was the seed that blossomed into the Youth Farm Initiative. Asking the youth what they wanted to do became the philosophy behind the program. 

On a typical day, students start their mornings by watering and weeding plant beds. The scientific element of STEM is practiced every day.

“We use the scientific theory by initially asking them what they want to plant,” Bekele said. “And then, with what you grow, how does it affect your body? If you don’t have a taste for it, what does it mean? What do you have to do to make it be palatable for you? We come up with different seasonings and things of that nature. There’s a ton of science involved.”

Afternoons are dedicated to professional development. Scientists from Eli Lilly and Co. often visit to teach students how to conduct experiments. Teachers and media professionals also visit to teach students about their career fields.

Naomi Davis, a sophomore at Purdue University, entered the Youth Farm Initiative in middle school and never left.

“My favorite part about the program is being able to directly help students that look like me,” Davis said. “I love being able to make the impact on the community that we desperately need.”

Students use farming to cater to the needs of the community. A few of the neighborhood residents’ favorites are kale, tomatoes and collards, all of which can be found at the on-site farmers’ market. 

“Another thing we really try to work on is building community partnerships, so we frequently go to Hillside Neighborhood Association meetings,” Davis said. “We talk to the elders in the community to see how things were in the past, and how we can help in the future.”

In addition to STEM and community involvement, the program also teaches students other important life skills. 

One student, 13-year-old Alex, was killed in 2006. To help the other students deal with this tragedy in their own way, Bekele asked them the question she always does: “What do you want to do about it?”

The youth decided to plant a tree and perform a play in his honor. For Bekele, this solidified the fact that students could handle taking part in any situation.

Willie Hawkins, president of the Hillside Neighborhood Association, said the relationship with the Youth Farming Initiative has grown since it began about four years ago. The Hillside Neighborhood Association meets the first Monday of every month, and the youth are always present at the meetings. The youth also participate in community cleanups and giveaways that occur throughout the year.

“They’ve become a part of the neighborhood association and they really inspired us,” Hawkins said. “She inspires the youth, not only with farming, but with giving back and community awareness.” 

Contact newsroom intern Mikaili Azziz at 317-924-5143. Follow her on Twitter @mikailiazziz.

Aster Bekele, founder of the Felege Hiywot Center

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