Sierra House Elementary: Going Beyond The Curriculum

Sierra House Elementary School in Tahoe, California purchased two 18’ Growing Domes® from Growing Spaces® in September 2014. The installation was complete by November 2014. Michelle McLean, the dome chair; Kristi Wilson, first grade teacher & Dome manager; Rebecca Bryson, assistant Dome fundraiser; and Ryan Galles, Principal of Sierra House Elementary, had only dreamed about installing greenhouses on the school property just one year ago.

School Staff celebrating the construction of Dome greenhouse
Staff Posing with one of the two 18′ Growing Domes

The dream included transforming an empty, deserted lot into a highly productive and educational community garden, so that students could not only learn about gardening, but eating healthy too. Today, Michelle and Kristi’s dream has come true. Both have been working hard to coordinate everyone’s efforts and make the Growing Domes an educational sanctuary for the students at Sierra House Elementary School. Thanks to a spectacular collaborative effort, the Sierra House Growing Dome Program (SHGDP) has been implemented and integrated into the school curriculum.

Donation Tree

There has not been any hesitation from the community to get their hands dirty. Soroptimists International, the global volunteer movement working towards empowering and improving the lives of girls and women, donated $25,000 to help the school purchase the Growing Domes. There’s always room for improvements, new tools, and materials for expansion, so Michelle McLean and Julie Lowe cleverly created a name recognition program for anyone interested in contributing and donating to the project. One leaf with your name inscribed is valued at a $250 to $999 donation and one apple on the tree is valued at a $1000+ donation. If you would like to contribute, but don’t know how or don’t live in the area, this is your chance! Contact Michelle McLean for more information (

Donors of two 18' Growing Dome greenhouses
From left to right: Michelle McLean, Dome Chair; Soroptomists International, Growing Dome donors; Steve Morales, Lake Tahoe Unified School District Facilities Director; Rebecca Bryson, worked together with Michelle to obtain funding and install Growing Domes; and Ryan Galles, Principal.

Local young people in their 20’s are very interested in gardening and flocked to help Steve Morales, Lake Tahoe Unified School District Facilities Director, and others install the greenhouses when they heard about the project. During the opening ceremony, over seventy people from the community attended, including local donors, master gardeners, and people from nearby schools. The program already has forty ‘Garden Parents’ total, and interestingly enough, one quarter involved are dads. The ‘Garden Parents’ are parents that have volunteered their time with promoting the SHGDP program, whether it be gardening, maintenance, planting, harvesting, or even helping teachers teach a class–if they feel up to it. With all of these inspired individuals on hand, volunteers are easy to come by for the coordinators, but every ounce of their efforts are greatly appreciated and necessary. Anyone who uses the Growing Domes has to schedule a time on the garden calendar in the teachers’ lounge, which helps keep everyone organized. This project would not be as successful if it were not for all of the exceptional volunteers and donors.

The students appropriately named the Growing Domes Seed and Sprout. Every class has gone out to plant and harvest. Students have harvested and enjoyed the produce as a classroom meal and/or brought home food to contribute to the family dinner table. For Michelle, “the best thing is to see kids happy and engaged” with the abundant life and wellness encompassed in the Growing Domes.

Michelle specifically noted that she had “never seen a class completely engaged the way they are in the domes, which it made it all worthwhile to see that happen”.

Kids Planting Seeds
Students Planting Seeds with a ‘Garden Parent’.

This is such a wonderful accomplishment because the SHGDP aims at integrating the California curriculum standards into everything that they do in the Growing Domes. This is where the educational sanctuary comes into play. The Growing Domes are the perfect environment to teach life sciences, earth sciences, investigation and experimentation in science, math, language arts, reading, writing, and art to students without losing their attention.

At this point in time, the staff is working on creating a formal curriculum for all activities in the Growing Dome so that next year the students can spend even more time in the greenhouses. More time with Seed and Sprout means more opportunities for students, but it also means a lot of work for the teachers and volunteers.

The greatest challenges include scheduling and timing with teachers and volunteers, yet many of those challenges will be worked out with the development of the curriculum over the summer. Climate change also presents a challenge, for cool season crops like lettuce, spinach, kale, and arugula will bolt if it gets too warm. Michelle has already noted this experience with the arugula they planted early in the year. Instead of multiple harvests, they only had one harvest due to the heat.

The challenge with plants and climate is a delicate one, because no matter how well the lives of the plants are planned, plants do not care about the schedule you have for them. Luckily, the number of people involved in the project will help lighten the load. Ideally, the coordinators would like to have a paid, part-time staff member to manage the domes, which would significantly improve the efficiency of the program. Furthermore, the coordinators are interested in involving all of schools within the Lake Tahoe Unified School District in a similar program. Future goals include an end of the year pizza party, and contributing to school lunches from the Seed and Sprout harvests. There are also plans for expanding outdoors (now that they have a place to start seeds).

The SHGDP has huge implications locally, internationally, and globally. Not only are there new opportunities for teachers to educate and students to learn, but there are opportunities for the community to do so and get involved. Students, staff, and volunteers will lead happier, healthier lives, and spread this awareness much like mathematical fractals. Every individual involved in the program will realize the impacts and understand how contributions can be made on a larger scale. I

n providing students with these hands-on opportunities, they are acquiring a much needed skill for the future, thus empowering the movement through time, further exacerbating a desire for living in a healthy harmony with our planet. One individual will spread their knowledge and experience with their friends/family then this friend/family will do the same. Eventually, everyone will discover the bountiful benefits of working with biological activity instead of working against these processes for what we need to subsist. Again, these implications have profound possibilities for changing the way we live in space and time.

author avatar
Kyle joined the Growing Spaces team in 2015, and enjoys being involved in all the exciting projects and developments happening around here!I graduated from Pagosa Springs High School in 2009 and moved to Gunnison, Colorado to pursue a degree in Environmental Studies. After graduating from Western State Colorado University, I moved back to my home town Pagosa Springs. Since moving back home in 2013, I have been working to develop a farm in Arboles. In my spare time, one may find me backpacking in the wilderness, cruising on a mountain bike, slacklining in the park, or skiing Wolf Creek. I also enjoy creating art when I am not outdoors. The mediums that I enjoy working with are yarn, canvas and paint, and clay. I have been experimenting with aquapoinics and am always excited to share knowledge on the subject with others. I joined the Growing Spaces team in 2015, and enjoy being involved in all the exciting projects and developments happening around here!


  • I thoroughly enjoyed reading your story about the birth of your two domes! I am a private teacher here in Boulder, Colorado, and am planning to put up a greenhouse dome too! I agree that teaching kids through hands-on activities rewards them in so many ways. Subsistence and sustainability are key elements for everyone to practice in the 21st century, so giving kids hands-on experiences is the best way for them to understand. Good luck with this project!! I’ll be checking back in to see how all is going!! I will follow your lead!

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