Hydroponics in the classroom
Hydroponic farming is an alternative agricultural method where a substrate like gravel, Matrix Media, or perlite is used instead of soil. As hydroponics gains popularity for growers constrained by space or markets, it also opens up hundreds of opportunities related to sustainability, food quality, and teaching.
If you're reading this, then you are interested in seeing more on classroom hydroponics. Many schools are taking advantage of the learning opportunities that come with classroom hydroponics. Are you?
Whether you're interested in classroom hydroponics because its potential fills you with enthusiasm, or you were assigned this project, there are a lot of reasons to get excited.
Why hydroponics in the classroom?
Hydroponics has been around for a while, with a history that ranges from Aztec cities to WW2 outposts in the Pacific. In the last decade or two, however, hydroponic techniques have made a significant jump in sophisitcation and usability. With that usability comes not only benefits for farmers, but benefits for educators. Some of the benefits include:
1) A wide range of teachability
Use of hydroponics has implications reaching from water conservation to space travel. It deals intimately with physical science, biology, engineering, chemistry, ecology, politics, and much more.
Just because you can teach all of these things with a hydroponics system, however, doesn't mean that you have to. Teachers can pick and choose hydroponic systems and set ups that range from simple and easy to challenging.
2) Growing plants fosters innovation and critical thinking skills.
Educators from elementary through the high school level can do more than teach students chemistry and biology lessons. With increasingly affordable and accessible technology, teachers can bring the latest growing equipment into the classroom. They can inspire innovative thinking into the minds of their students.
Your students need answers to more than just pass a class. They need to develop the critical thinking skills needed to cultivate solutions to complex problems.
And who knows - maybe even impact the future of agriculture forever.
3) Increases conscience surrounding food issues.
Do your students know where their food comes from? Or even how it's grown? Do they know about the sustainable farming practices that went into growing our food, or lack thereof?
Many Americans are more disconnected from agriculture than ever before. Students don't know who grows their food, what pesticides are used, or even how long it's been on a truck to get to our plates.
The first step to creating that awareness is showing students what the process from seed to plate looks like. Having students manage that process brings up questions like, "What if we were growing a whole farm full of this crop? How do farmers bring produce to sell it?"
4) Hands-on learning opportunities
Making the transition from ideas and problems on paper to real-life solutions can be a difficult process. Often, the movement from abstraction to reality is too big a jump to make. But what if that jump was immediate?
Dozens of educators are giving their students a chance to put lessons into practice right away. Students learning about a plant's life cycle can watch it happen - and manipulate it themselves. Students learning engineering can apply their lessons by building a real hydroponic system.
Challenges of teaching hydroponics in the classroom
Of course, any intensive teaching method requires work; having a hydroponic garden requires no more work than a small garden or a class guinea pig. Keeping a class Farm Wall, would involve the following tasks:
- Setting up the system (manuals and tutorials)
- Growing seedlings from seed (tutorial)
- Planting seedlings in a ZipGrow Tower (tutorial)
- Monitoring drippers, plant health, and lighting
- Harvesting plants to eat
Of course, each there are ways to make each of these tasks easy. For example: Bright Agrotech, the maker of the Farm Wall, provides manuals for their products as well as kits and how-to's on growing seeds, harvesting, etc.
The skills required to manage a hydroponic system vary by the type of system and how big it is.
On the easy end of the scale would be a contained system like a ZipGrow Farm Wall, which uses pre-made nutrients and comes with everything included. If you use a Farm Wall, then a basic knowledge of gardening (identifying wilted or unhealthy plants, knowing how to harvest produce) will serve you well. Using a simple system like the Farm Wall, and educator can still teach students about world events and issues, plant biology, some chemistry, and even food preparation skills.
On the more complicated end would be a self-made aquaponics system. Aquaponics is a type of hydroponics which uses fish to power the main nutrient cycle. Because you include fish and foster a more robust nutrient cycle, aquaponics allows teachers to expand into fish biology, ecology, and water chemistry. Setting up the system yourself gives possibilities to teach engineering, physics, and mathematics as well as you design the system with your students.
As you can see, educators can choose the degree of difficulty with their system choices. (If you want to chat to someone about this decision, feel free to give us a call.)
Frequently Asked Questions about classroom gardens
A common concern with beginning hydroponicists is the logistics of system management. Here are some frequently asked questions about management of a classroom system:
Will the system leak?
System leaks could happen if constructed improperly. Testing the system out before filling it and leaving it unattended will help you avoid that problem.
Does it need supervision on the weekends?
Simple hydroponic systems are usually fine over the weekend. Aquaponic system do need to be checked, however, as they have a living component that needs to be fed. Some educators use remote sensing and automation to decrease the amount of supervision that the system needs. (And create new learning opportunities while they're at it!)
Can I shut it down in the summer?
Hydroponic system are easy to shut down after a harvest by unplugging and draining the system. Shutting down aquaponic systems temporarily can get complicated and is not recommended.
Need more answers? Talk to a hydroponics helper here.
Ways to use hydroponics in the classroom
Over the years, we've had the pleasure of knowing many educators using hydroponics and aquaponics in the their classrooms or schools. Each one has developed a unique system to suit their needs.
Kathy Stanton uses hydroponics to dig into STEM.
Kathy Stanton uses four Spring Systems to teach STEM subjects to 400 5th and 6th graders. She believes that direct learning is crucial for students. Kathy used the Spring Systems as models for projects like building growth chambers for space and designing sustainable growing systems for the community.
" We can no longer afford to be hesitant in allowing student inquiry to lead our instruction. By allowing curiosity to direct learning, our classrooms become more exciting and engaging spaces in which learning extends far beyond the walls of the classroom."
Kevin Savage, of Cincinnati, Ohio, describes how his aquaponics lab follows students throughout high school:
"We begin using aquaponics with our freshman in Biology to support teaching of aquatic ecosystems, intro to microbiology, intro to botany, cellular biology, photosynthesis, etc. Our sophomore students take chemistry, and we use the aquaponics systems to teach about pH, oxidation-reduction reactions, etc. All of our “hands-on” construction and system operations aquaponics activities take place as a part of our Environmental Science I & II course sequence (Sustainable and Urban Agriculture), or as a component of independent student research."
Younger students are equally engaged with a classroom hydroponics system. Dan Hughes, of Holly, Michigan, is sacrificing his desk space to make room for an aquaponic system. He plans to use the system to teach the nitrogen cycle and plant and animal relationships to 7th and 8th grade ecology students.
The sky really is the limit when it comes to teaching with hydroponics. We hope you're excited about the possibilities as we are!
Different teaching models
So just how do students get to interact with a hydroponic system in their classroom? Every educator and every group of students are different, so educators have come up with several different ways of alloting responsibility and privileges.
Group to stage: Teachers divide the class into groups and gives each group responsibility over a stage of the plant's lifecycle. For example, Group A is in charge of growing enough healthy seedlings for the system, Group B is in charge of planting the seedlings, Group C is in charge of keeping the seelding healthy until they're big enough to harvest, and Group D is in charge of harvesting and preparing the produce.
Group to ZipGrow Tower: Teachers with smaller classes or bigger systems may give each group of students their own tower to manage. This works best in elementary classes rather than period-structured grades.
Group to task: Each group of students is in charge of a different aspect of management. For instance, Group A is in charge of looking for insects and diseases on the plants. Group B is in charge of making sure the system has enough water for a long enough time, and Group C is in charge of giving the system the right amount of light for the right duration.
Volunteer-based: The entire class tackles the same problems and research and make decisions about the system as a class. Teachers assign students however they wish to actually carry out a task.
Mentoring: Some educators match up each student in an higher grade to teach a student in a younger grade about the system. This is a great way to encourage leadership skills and community across ages.
How to get started?
So say you want to take the next step and plan out a system. How do you get started?
1) Know your preferences and talk it out.
Consider the following before deciding on a system:
What are my goals for the system? Do I want to feed people? Do I want it to fund itself?
What do I want to teach with the system? Will I need fish to teach it?
How many students/classes will be interacting with the system? How hands-on do I want that interaction to be?
What is my budget?
2) Decide on equipment and set up
Browse through vertical hydroponic equipment on our shop to see the equipment that dozens of educators choose for their classroom gardens.
3) Secure funding
You can read about 10 ways to get funding for your classroom garden here.
5) Do it!
And remember that whatever obstacles you may encounter, we're just a phone call away at (307)288-1188!
Need more guidance on getting started?
See how Tim Minor developed the Edible Learning Lab and learn about curriculum: