A group of Middletown students are discovering firsthand that you don’t need soil to make plants grow — just science and ingenuity, along with water, plastic buckets, tubing, light, and heat.
Dr. Jameson Chace, associate professor of biology and biomedical sciences at Salve Regina University, is spearheading the latest hydroponics project on Aquidneck Island at All Saints Academy with support from Rhode Island NSF Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) and RI Partnerships for Success.
“The project touches on a lot of components,” explained Chace. “There’s hands-on science for the kids, work study and great exposure for the undergrads, community service, and food for organizations such as the women’s shelter and soup kitchen.”
One recent afternoon, Dr. Chace and two of his undergraduate students, Sage Staven and Zoe Moskwa, pulled into the All Saints Academy parking lot and hauled orange, 5-gallon pails and long stretches of plastic pipe into the kindergarten through eighth-grade school.
As they walked inside and headed to the classroom of Anita Brouse, middle school science teacher and robotics coach, passing students eagerly greeted the procession. Of the school’s 150 students, more than 50 wanted to participate in the pioneer hydroponic garden effort. But, construction required only a core group of eight students from grades 4-8, also known as the Hydro Team.
Everyone, though, will benefit as the project incorporates the core curriculum. Brouse said in addition to the hands-on building of the hydroponics system, the garden offers students at all levels a chance to learn such critical skills as science writing and the details of data collection.
Learning by doing
For Salve undergrads Staven, a senior biology major with a concentration in environmental science, and Moskwa, a junior environmental studies major, the project means more than 10 work study hours a week. They get the chance to give back to the community and make a difference in young lives.
“One of the best aspects of my job in hydroponics outreach is that it doesn’t feel like a job,” Staven said. “This experience has really taught me how much change can be made at the local level. I have big aspirations for the world, and being able to make a difference is so inspiring.”
At the hands-on level, she added, students learn how hydroponics can grow crops indoors, using limited space and resources: “It’s also great getting students and teachers excited about hydroponics, and the science and engineering behind it.”
Eighth grader Morgan Schram said she wanted to be a veterinarian when she grew up, but the hydroponics project appealed to her general interest in science. The experience has taught her how to make better hypotheses, appreciate her talents and think innovatively to solve problems. As an added bonus, Morgan said, all the measuring and multiplying to construct the garden has improved her math skills. “I can do my math quicker,” she noted.
Although less than three years in action, the hydroponics project has spread to five sites, with one more on the way. It began with a contribution by Irving Backman of the Dedham, Mass.-based I.A. Backman Associates to Salve Regina. Satellite locations on Aquidneck Island include the Boys and Girls Club, MLK Jr. Community Center, St. Joseph’s Church, the East Bay Met School, All Saints Academy, and soon-to-be at St. Philomena School.
On the grand scale, Dr. Chace said, the hydroponics project is magical and the best part of his job.
“We’re promoting science, sustainability and community/university partnerships,” he said. “Hydroponics is just one avenue to do all three. My primary focus is to get science into the hands of students, and getting my undergraduates into the community, where the students become the teacher, and better yet, the collaborator.”
Excitement in science
At the same time, the project goes beyond a short-term science kit:
“It’s the real deal. Kids learn from the ground up — what’s the problem, what tools do we have, how do we formulate designs to address the problem, how do we design an experiment, what are the controls, what do we quantify, how do we collect the data and produce measurable results, how do we communicate those results, how do we refine and retool our systems to ask more questions, how do we use science to improve our lives?”
Community volunteer Tom Kowalczyk champions both Dr. Chace and the project, noting the Salve professor’s work to protect and preserve the Aquidneck Island Watershed. As a longtime engineering industry volunteer in the K-12 system, he cited the educational integration of the Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics (STEAM) fields as the most important outcome.
Students who are motivated and excited about their work develop a high level of self-efficacy in STEAM subjects — they learn that they can do the work, Kowalczyk said. That factor alone, he noted, has proven to be a dominant factor in making career choices.
The beauty of the hydroponics garden lies in its cross-disciplinary approach. It integrates plant science with the art of designing an indoor farm that will use natural light pouring in through hallway windows and the engineering demanded for processors, sensors and actuators to monitor the growing plants.
The project also becomes sustainable as each satellite becomes independent and part of a larger, integrated network. And finally, people eat more local greens and enjoy a healthier lifestyle with less dependence on food shipped in from across the globe, according to Chace.
The long-term dream is that every school on the island will have a student-sustainable hydroponic garden that will be a part of both the curriculum and the daily lunch. Students will experiment, using knowledge of plant growth to discover better ways of production and new knowledge of design and electronic systems to increase efficiency and decrease costs.
Toward a better future
Dr. Chace said building excitement counteracted the way science kills itself and winds up serving a small, select group of the population: “We set it off with courses, probably as early as fifth grade, where we filter kids out instead of pumping them up.”
He looks at his migratory bird studies and the hydroponics project, Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR’s marine climate change and watershed studies, as community outreach, citizen-based science activities that give back to society and encourage more involvement in science.
“For the hydroponics project, we have real food needs in Rhode Island and real dietary issues,” Dr. Chace said. “These are societal costs that science can help address. I cannot change the world, but I can try to make Aquidneck Island a little better tomorrow than it is today.”
At All Saints Academy, change already is underway even though the planting has yet to begin.
A couple of girls stopped by Brouse’s classroom after eating lunch. They handed her two just-rinsed yogurt containers for use in the garden. Meanwhile, the Hydro Team spent the remaining time of that day’s recess measuring pipes and tubes, calculating the most promising design methods and attaching plastic cups to build the vertical garden.
Staven reflected on her earlier involvement in running a daylong hydroponics workshop for primary school teachers. The experience, she said, was amazing.
“My small actions that day will go on to teach hundreds of children the wonders of science and the importance of sustainability,” she said. “I’ve never considered being a teacher, but this experience has opened my eyes to how important it is for one person to teach and inspire others.
“All of this makes me really think about how I want to live my life after I complete my undergraduate degree, and how I can help change the world, even if it is just locally, and progress toward a positive future for the Earth and all of its inhabitants.”
Story and photos by Amy Dunkle