Grant brings hydroponic growing to elementary students

Even though Ohio’s springtime weather was wet and cold, the recipients of an OSLN STEM Classroom Grant and their students kept experimenting. Philip Theobald, technology coordinator for the Noble Local School District, applied for and won $2,500 to install a hydroponic farm inside Shenandoah Elementary School for the project “Farming Year-Round in Ohio Weather?!” Using the hydroponic farm, students would grow leafy vegetables and herbs indoors. They would apply STEM principles to agriculture and explore how technology could increase Ohio’s summer crop season from five months a year to 12. We interviewed Philip Theobald and district teacher Juli Harper about how their indoor garden is growing and how their students are benefitting.

Q: Tell us about your school district.

A: We are a small, rural district (approximately 1,000 students) in southeastern Ohio with the primary diversity being economic, encompassing 289 square miles and zero traffic lights. We want to increase hope, access and opportunity for all students, and we are proud to be a STEM designated district, the only one in our region. We are vigilant in our quest to prepare our students to be future ready.

Q: Why did you choose hydroponics for your grant project, and what were your original learning goals for your students?

A: One of our pathways in our district is agriculture, which is a major business sector in our region. We often use “STEAM” as our acronym, including “A” for agriculture. We understand the importance of a safe food supply and also how technology can be implemented to support agriculture and food safety. Technology allows us to grow 12 months a year instead of the standard five- to six-month summer crop season in Ohio.

Q: What age/grade of students are participating in the project, and what are they doing? What are you growing so far?

A: We are implementing this with fifth to eighth grades, however, the system is placed in our cafeteria so all students PreK-8 can see the system in action and are free to explore and ask questions. 

We are starting with lettuces but will be growing herbs and looking at strawberries. Students start the plants as seeds in a smaller grow bed before moving into the main system. Students mix the nutrients, monitor pH and check for signs of disease or nutrient deficiencies. They also troubleshoot issues as they arise, find a solution and make an optimal prevention plan. 

Students are making inferences on the amount of light needed for optimal growth. Our timers were initially set 12 hours on and 12 hours off. The students are nervous about altering the timing because the lettuce plants are doing so well!

Fertilizer has been added since day one. There were many questions about weaning the plants off the fertilizer once they are another week old just because wherever the plants end up, they might not have access to this type of fertilizer or any at all. One student compared it to going from lots of food to no food, which is a good observation for a fifth-grader. 

They love checking on the plants each day. They fully believe they can actually see them growing! We talk about adequate sun exposure when they re-create this at home. They might not have the grow lights, but a south-facing window will give them the best light.

We should have done a better job at charting the plant growth (average leaves, “wingspan” of the plant, etc.). This is something we will do for the next round of seeds. 

I (Harper) am going to find an inexpensive yet durable container to send seedlings home with my fifth-graders. 

Q: How did you plan to assess the students’ progress? What impacts have you seen so far in student learning?

A: Throughout this project, our indoor farmers will monitor, compare, measure, test and change the variables (lighting, nutrients, water) to best support the plants. These skills can be taken home to their families, and they strengthen the relationship between the school and the community.

One of our goals is to introduce our students to creating at-home, indoor hydroponics. With low or no investment, using a Mason jar or a plastic cup, students can take the processes used in our school setup and create a Kratky hydroponic setup in their kitchen window. It’s a great conversation starter for students and families on the possibilities of Ohio farming 12 months a year and maintaining food security. Future indoor farmers of America!

Q: Have things progressed according to plan, or have there been bumps along the way, and how have you and the students managed those?

A: Things have progressed very well. We are able to grow a wide variety of leafy vegetables and herbs using the recirculating hydroponic nutrient film technique.  

Bumps in the road: We have sprung a few leaks but have been addressing them as they appear with food-grade silicone. Also, because we are staging the plants into the system, we do have open ports that allow light in and could cause algae growth, which is not harmful but steals nutrients from our plants. 

In the photo you can see the Tinkercad model of a cover that was created and 3D printed by students to remedy this issue until we place plants into those ports.

Q: Have you utilized outside experts for advice/assistance?

A: Not an expert, but our technology coordinator runs a miniature version of this system at home, and he stepped us through the setup and our first grow. We also relied heavily on CropKing, an Ohio-based vendor of hydroponics and greenhouse solutions.

hydroponics No. 1

Q: Would you do anything differently?

A: We would not change a thing. The system has been easy to set up and run, and our students are excited to see the daily growth. We want to bring in our Arduino class at our high school to monitor water levels through that technology.

Q: What advice do you have for other STEM educators who might be considering applying for a STEM Classroom Grant from OSLN?

A: Brainstorm with your students – what are your school’s pathways, goals and community needs? How can you bring STEM into the classroom to support those? STEM is about getting students to think critically and be problem solvers!

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