Page last updated: 06/26/06

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Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection
 VermiLab Program

VermiLab Program Overview

During the summer of 1995, Joe Keyser, Education Specialist with the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection, took a few thousand redworms to meet with William N. McDonald, elementary science coordinator for Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), to discuss VermiLab -- a composting education initiative for students in grades 1-5, which would take composting out of the backyard and into the classroom itself.

The VermiLab pilot project initially called for 30 elementary school teachers to volunteer to adopt a wormbin for their classroom, and use it in conjunction with other natural science materials. Word of mouth spread throughout the educational community and well over 30 teachers contacted McDonald to register for VermiLab training, even before any formal announcement had gone out.

Keyser agreed to expand the October 1 "pilot" to now include 35 classrooms, although now the Department of Academic Programs had placed an additional 20-plus teachers on a waiting list. The program was expanded again, another training was held in December and 30 more classrooms were added. Interest expanded as quickly as the worm population, and additional trainings were held during late winter and spring of 1996.

To date, over 100 classrooms have made a home for VermiLab worm boxes in almost 60 schools, and additional training programs for members of the Outdoor Education Association and other MCPS faculty continue.

These popular training sessions at the Lathrop E. Smith Environmental Education Center include a tour of the Composting Discovery Garden and the Worm Garden, located behind the cafeteria. The Worm Garden receives the fruit and vegetable scraps from the cafeteria, which the staff at the Center weighs and records. The students then take the compostables to one of several large wormbins for an exciting, squeal-filled, and large-scale worm-feeding orgy.

Indoor training for teachers includes a history of the program, overview of worm composting and vermiculture, and culminates in the team construction of worm boxes -- where newspaper is shredded, dampened, and one pound or 1,000 redworms are added. Teachers also receive Mary Appelhof's Worms Eat Our Garbage, an extensive classroom activities workbook and observation guide, back issues of Worm Digest featuring a special issue on "Worms in the Classroom," composting posters, a composting tee-shirt, and additional printed resources.

As part of the program, teachers are encouraged to tie the care and feeding of the worm box into both the existing science curriculum and the social studies program, "Caring for the Earth -- Recycling Lessons," in addition to a host of data collection activities, many of which can be developed from the Appelhof workbook. After 4 months, teachers and their students prepare a variety of different reports on their vermicomposting experiences: everything from poems, songs, photos, slide showshows, student-produced Worm Newspapers for the entire school, essays, data collection reports and graphs, posters, artwork, French chanson, compost samples, and much more. In return, each participating student receives a composting tee-shirt, featuring the County's colorful and award-winning composting logo.

These children, exposed to the magnificent web of life in the soil around them, become composting emissaries for the County. They help bring home information -- and concern -- to their parents, siblings, and neighbors. They also serve as persuasive and winsome walking billboards whenever they wear their tee-shirts outside to play.

VermiLab also goes beyond the public elementary school project, with wormbins in private schools like Landon and Stone Ridge, where middle and upper school students are taking vermicomposting to new levels: testing various feedstocks, measuring temperature differentials inside and outside the worm ecosystem, looking for other composting "lifeforms," testing finished vermicompost pH, impact on growing media, as well as data collection on comparative anatomy, reproduction, and much more. These advanced classes generally operate as teams of two students to a worm bin.

VermiLab has become a part of the Montgomery County Government infrastructure. More and more offices around the County are hosting wormbins for use by employees: coffee grounds, egg shells, banana peels, and the like are finding a new life as compost, which is being recycled back into ever-healthier office plants. These office-based wormbins are also winning new converts to vermicomposting: workers who shuddered at the thought of worms in their lunchroom or hallway are now starting to bring scraps in from home.

The numbers for the initiative show that the program has grown far beyond its pilot origins: over 120 classrooms and offices, over 5,000 students introduced to vermicomposting in their schools or at the Smith Center -- and many more of various ages at special events, fairs, festivals, shopping malls, and so on. There are easily over five million wiggling redworms composting in Montgomery County, teaching students and adults some important new lessons in recycling and resource stewardship.

The program's future includes plans to expand classroom participation much further in the fall of 1996, including the establishment of large scale outdoor vermicomposting systems for school courtyards, which will help involve all a school's students, plus faculty, staff, cafeteria monitors, etc., in the composting process. And Montgomery County is also offering additional training in vermicomposting to residents through its volunteer Master Composter program, including providing colonies of redworms to individuals interested enough to set up their own worm box.

A key campaign element for the future has to include Digger Worm, a bright orange and yellow worm mascot over six feet tall with a miner's helmet and a big smile. Brought to life by volunteers, Digger has made initial appearances at garden shows, shopping malls, and Earth Day celebrations. He (or it) also visits County classrooms with a VermiLab assistant to teach children more about worms, composting, and the environment. Digger's presence always draws a crowd and ensures that children will have a delightful introduction to the world of vermicomposting.

In the meantime, VermiLab has caught the attention and imagination of environmental educators across America and abroad. Coverage has been provided locally through live remote broadcasts on the Fox Morning News and on News Channel 21; nationally, the program was featured in Environmental Manager, Composting News, HortIdeas, BioCycle, Resource Recycling, and was covered by the AP wire service. Telephone inquiries come in every several days from diverse areas like Texas, Oregon, Connecticut, Ontario, and British Columbia. Keyser has lectured on the program to EPA-sponsored conferences and in the United Kingdom, where it received coverage in several national publications such as the Evening Standard, and in British Journals like the Henry Doubleday Research Association's Composting News.

Detailed Program Description

Montgomery County has long pursued an aggressive campaign to encourage the recycling of yard trimmings materials, and educate and promote source reduction of yard trim through home composting, grasscycling, and alternative landscaping techniques, as the most cost-effective and environmentally beneficial method for managing organic materials. Children have been identified as a powerful component in this campaign, as seen from previous experience with recycling, where they readily and effectively bring the recycling message home from school and serve as the most vigilant enforcers of a recycling scheme in their families. Recognizing this phenomenon, the County Department of Environmental Protection launched a campaign to bring composting to the schools, although a new strategy was required since typical backyard composting is beyond the attention span and interest level of most younger children. In response, VermiLab was established as an extensive, hands-on, multi-disciplinary program for children from Kindergarten to 12th grade, and developed in cooperation with the Department of Academic Programs in the Public School system. VermiLab allows children to participate in and observe the wonders of composting every day in their classroom and school courtyards. Moreover, VermiLab also provides training and information for residents and businesses interested in composting food scraps, often in response to their children's enthusiasm to compost and vermicompost at home.

Program Development

VermiLab was developed during the summer of 1995 with several specific objectives: to introduce school children to composting, resource conservation, and waste reduction; to foster an appreciation and understanding of soil science, soil ecology, and the environmental impact of pollutants, nutrients, and pesticides; to employ children as emissaries of composting information thereby reinforcing the County's ongoing message to homeowners; to heighten children's awareness of the interdependence of life in the environment around them; and to fundamentally change the behavior and attitudes of these future citizens with respect to their environment.

Planning for VermiLab was initiated and has been managed by the environmental education specialist in the County's DEP, who held a series of meetings or summits to obtain the support of the public school administration, and to actively involve elementary, middle and upper school representatives of the department for academic programs, elementary science coordinators, academic program developers, environmental educators, social studies teachers, and the manager of the County's Master Composter program.

Programmatically, VermiLab is a lesson is sustainability. By involving the schools in the development of the project, DEP ensured that VermiLab would take on a life of its own: participants are fully vested in the quality and scope of their work within the program and continually introduce new ideas, experiments, and applications. Even if DEP no longer sponsored the initiative, VermiLab would continue to flourish, with science team leaders taking over aspects of teacher training, and individual schools obtaining modest funding through outside foundations, such as the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

At the core of VermiLab is a series of three-hour in-service training programs for teachers conducted at the County's Environmental Education Center, which includes hands-on activities, tours of the facility's large-scale vermicomposting system (a "Worm Garden"), tours of the Compost Discovery Garden, and classroom specific training. Teachers are provided with worm boxes and worms, literature, workbooks, data collection forms, and useful journal reprints.

The teachers ultimately set up the worm box with their students, weigh and feed food scraps to the worms as the ongoing mandatory source reduction portion of the project, monitor activity, and conduct various scientific experiments, while also engaging in other multidisciplinary activities. At the conclusion of the school term, individual students or student teams prepare Worm Reports, either in journal or essay form, or present experiences using art, music, poetry, cartoons, short stories, student newspapers, Internet "worm sites," mixed "recycled media" models, short plays, foreign language reports, etc., depending on the teacher and/or student's specific interests, grade level -- i.e., middle and high school students study pH and moisture levels and conduct comparative plant growth tests, while younger children focus on weights and measures, counting exercises, and visual observations -- disabilities, and other considerations.

Lastly, many students obtain parental permission to take home sub-colonies of worms from the mature worm box to establish worm boxes at home; with students receiving assembly, care, and feeding training from teachers as part of their VermiLab studies. Finished compost is used in school gardens, greenhouses, or GrowLab experiments.

In addition, VermiLab volunteers (Master Composters) provide visits to classes and schools without worm boxes, with a standard presentation developed for several key age groups. Also, VermiLab has a mascot in the form of a seven-foot tall orange and yellow worm costume named Digger Worm. Digger visits school assemblies, shopping centers, fairs, festivals, parades, and has made appearances on cable television programming -- accompanied by an interpreter. Digger is an important and loveable bridge between children and worms, helping them to overcome initial squeamishness.

The concept of larger scale vermicomposting in Worm Gardens has been adapted from the initial prototype by half-a-dozen County schools, which now send all of their fruit and vegetable scraps to a series of large outdoor worm boxes. Several schools are currently writing grants to establish worm gardens of their own.

Thanks in part to Digger Worm, extensive media attention, and the zealous interest of almost 10,000 students annually, there are very few homes in Montgomery County which have not heard about composting with worms, while the homes of those involved students are clearly receiving a message about pesticide use, mulching, waste prevention, and organics recycling, among other topics.

Program Cost

Start-up costs for VermiLab included outlay for commercially-manufactured worm boxes, worms, and classroom activity workbooks, with the cost per classroom at approximately $56. It should be noted, however, that as worm colonies continue to expand, additional classrooms, worm gardens, and interested residents are guaranteed a source for free worms (although the program does sell worms to residents for $5 pound -- which has helped to recover some of the initial investment). Other cost considerations include Digger Worm, with design and production costing approximately $4,300, and the establishment of Worm Gardens at $325 per site. VermiLab represents ten percent of the time of a full-time education specialist in DEP.

Program Success

VermiLab was launched in Fall 1995 as a pilot for 25 classrooms. Overwhelming response brought the pilot to over 100 classrooms in two months. Currently, VermiLab is in over 100 public and private schools, several day care centers, and in approximately 224 classrooms, although some teachers have constructed their own boxes, borrowed worms, and expanded the program independently.

Over 5,000 students have everyday contact with composting, with another 5,000 exposed through the Environmental Education Center, and through Worms-In-Schools tours. Worm Gardens are rapidly growing in popularity as both educational tools and on-site composting centers. Based on reports from teachers and Worm Gardens, approximately 50,000 pounds of food scraps were composted in 1996. Digger Worm made hundreds of appearances during 1996, almost every school day and 24 weekends; demand is so high that Digger II will be completed and at work by Spring 1997. A County Worm Page is being developed with the school system to provide a permanent interactive site for recording worm data (pounds of food, compost produced), as well as digital photos, scanned artwork, and a Digger Newsline for monthly tips, games, and contests.


VermiLab is one of the most exciting recycling/source reduction initiatives ever introduced into a jurisdiction. It has captured the interest and enthusiasm of the educational community, and won the hearts and minds of a broad range of children, from pre-school through high school. It provides a strong environmental education platform to change current and future behavior by these young citizens, while also utilizing these children as conduits for environmental education at home. Demand for presentations, worm boxes, and worms very nearly exceeds the program's capacity. Interest in VermiLab from across the U.S., as well as Canada and the U.K., is outstanding, with a mix of educators and solid waste/recycling officials writing, calling, and e-mailing almost daily for information kits and background literature. The program was also featured in numerous journal and consumer publications, and its developer was asked to make a formal presentation at the Global Education Summit convened in San Francisco in Winter 1996 by the National Science Teachers Association.

Worms in the Classroom

Twenty-five years ago, no one would give author and educator Mary Appelhof even five minutes of their time to learn about using worms to teach children about composting, recycling, and soil science. Today, the "Worm Woman" is invited nationwide -- and recently to New Zealand and Australia -- to share her very special knowledge of worms with teachers -- "tens of thousands of teachers," Mary points out, "and it's not stopping." The worm has definitely turned.

There are scores of programs in cities and counties throughout America where agricultural extension agents, recycling coordinators, naturalists, and other vermiphiles enter classrooms with boxes filled with thousands of worms to introduce children to the living, squiggling laboratory of the earth itself.

One of the most elaborate initiatives, called VermiLab, was developed in 1995 by the Montgomery County, Maryland, Department of Environmental Protection, in cooperation with the public school system, and integrated into the schools' science and social studies curricula. VermiLab was created to bring the natural act of composting closer and more graphically to kids, who then serve as irresistible compost emissaries. The program also strives to raise a child's awareness and curiosity about the web of life which surrounds them: including the invisible though vital life of the soil.

After its first academic term, VermiLab had provided training for 140 elementary, middle, and high school teachers, who brought that knowledge, along with a 2 cubic-foot worm box and 1,000 redworms, back to over 60 schools and 120 classrooms. In fact, interest among teachers was so high that a waiting list was developed for the following year. William N. McDonald, the school system's elementary science coordinator, marvels that "the program creates converts among the teachers." Not only do they overcome their own fear of worms, "they go out and get other teachers involved. And they're all coming up with far more unique projects than I ever envisioned."

Even in schools which host a single worm box, teachers like David Chia at Georgian Forest Elementary School actually take their show on the road. "After getting my kids worked up for a couple of weeks, I started taking the box into the teacher's lounge. Then I was asked to visit other classrooms." By early March 1996, Chia had visited every classroom in the school, and is currently working to develop a large-scale vermicomposting system in the school's courtyard to handle a ton of food scraps from the cafeteria.

Like Chia, teachers in other classes have worked with their students to get the word out. Some have developed worm newsletters, cultivating young journalists to share their experiences with fellow students throughout the school. And at least one worm box has gone digital, as Frank Sanford's students at Kensington Parkwood developed a worm site on the Internet to exchange information and digital photos with students at a school in St. Louis.

A key element for measuring the success of VermiLab was establishing a requirement for creative feedback from the children -- and teachers. Kindergarten age students were often instructed to create paintings or drawings of worms or worm ecology. Older children kept journals, wrote research papers, and created slide shows. Each student received a tee-shirt with the county's composting logo as a reward for their hard work -- and as a way to turn kids into walking advertisements for composting.

The reports were interdisciplinary and artful. Elementary science classes recorded decomposition rates of various vegetable and fruit foodstuffs, weighed materials, and counted worm populations. And middle school and older science students measured compost Ph and tested comparative plant growth rates of potting mixes using worm compost. Maryvale Elementary School, a popular French immersion program, submitted over 40 colorful folders with essays and poems in French, while other schools stressed mathematics, grammar, and other disciplines in the process of data collection.

In addition to the classroom-based program, where children took turns feeding and caring for their growing worm colonies, a large-scale Worm Garden was built behind the cafeteria of the County's Smith Environmental Education Center. The Center provides several days of training in environmental and natural science studies for thousands of sixth-grade students, and its curriculum now includes a healthy dose of composting.

Students visit a Compost Discovery Garden featuring over 20 backyard composting systems, where they learn to "dissect" a pile and look for compost critters -- the fungi and invertebrates which work with bacteria as decomposer organisms. Later, kids are taken to the Worm Garden, where five large worm boxes accommodate the fruit and vegetable scraps from the mess hall. Children learn that they are part of a big cycle: they will generate the food scraps, weigh them, and then add them to the worm boxes; the worms create compost, which staff and kids will then add to the gardens to grow more food, thus completing the cycle. Lindsey Tschida from Judith Resnik Elementary noted that "you could put food like banana peels, rotten melons, and tea bags in, but no meat." The worms make castings, or compost, and "you put it over your soil and it makes plants and whatever you are growing healthy."

One of the most noticeable elements in the VermiLab program is Digger Worm, a seven-foot tall, bright orange and yellow worm mascot, originally developed as a cartoon character to lead kids on imaginative expeditions through their worm box. Thanks to high school volunteers, Digger now makes appearances at schools, county fairs, and even the occasional shopping mall. He -- or "it" -- actually receives fan mail from kids often asking the character to come visit a particular school. Digger is a cuddly introduction to worms for younger children, and always travels with a worm-box toting assistant, always eager to show kids some of Digger's smaller relations.

The future for VermiLab is looking bright. Another hundred teachers will likely receive training and worm boxes during the next year, and numerous schools are building large, outdoor Worm Gardens to harness cafeteria scraps. A recent Washington Post article on the program generated over 100 calls requesting information -- and worms -- for indoor composting. And Digger Worm is making travel plans for a conference in San Francisco in late December.

The program to date has shared worm composting with over 5,000 students, with 1,800 kids receiving tee-shirts for an amazing range of poems, songs, essays, murals, and science projects. Yet beyond the data and numbers, the love for the soil engendered by worms, large and small, is the greatest payoff for VermiLab. "These worms are good to the world because they eat trash and make rich soil for us to grow plants," observed fourth-grader Brian Shorten, who wisely added, "So if you see a worm don't kill it."