MIT Stem Pals
March-April 2015

STEM Garden Institute: Learning Hydroponics
From Janet Lorden

Fact 1 – the more years our young students spend in school, the more their science and math scores drop compared to students from other industrialized countries.

Fact 2 – While nearly 71 percent of ninth-graders graduate high school, that figure drops to 58 percent for Hispanics and 55 percent for African- Americans.

Fact 3 – One in three American children are overweight or obese, nearly triple the rate in 1963.

These facts and many others reflect the staggering implications for US competitiveness and productivity, the social and economic well being of nearly a third of our population and health care costs that already are spiraling out of control.

STEM Garden Institute was founded in 2010 with a mission to help students graduate from high school with the skills needed to pursue careers or higher education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and to improve the nutritional habits and awareness among our youth, especially minorities and at-risk populations.

To achieve this, the Institute developed a pioneering program based on the science of hydroponic gardening.

Hydroponics draws on all the great, integrated disciplines of agricultural science. It brings 21st century technology to the classroom through a universal language where any child from anywhere, independent of race or gender, can learn modern industry desired skill sets. At first blush, hydroponics may seem only about growing food. However, this platform, through practical learning, delivers a robust curriculum not only in STEM but also in sustainability, energy savings, nutrition, and entrepreneurship.

Virtually any terrestrial plant will grow with hydroponics in a wide variety of indoor or outdoor environments (urban, countryside, desert, etc.), eliminating 95 percent of normal water requirements and the need for herbicides or pesticides. Hydroponic gardening produces approximately 20 times the normal production of field crops and will have significant operating and capital cost savings; most notably, transportation costs resulting in higher quality, fresher food and less transportation pollution.

In standards-based classroom instruction and after-school programs, students in grades K-12 learn the science of hydroponics. They build their own effective, low-cost, gardening systems while studying chemistry, biology, electrical conductivity, photosynthesis, genomics, thermo dynamics, alternative energy, and other topics. For example, students monitor energy consumption utilizing different light and insulation sources and then measure growth rates and cost to determine tradeoffs.

As students cultivate and tend their plants, they collect, analyze, and upload their data for peer review and discussions. They market and sell their products to farmers markets or restaurants, with the proceeds of the sales returned to the school’s hydroponic project. The result is a sustainable program for locally sourced, affordable fresh produce and other products – enhanced with unique opportunities for service learning and community engagement. Throughout, students discover an engaging, hands-on world of science, engineering, nutrition, and entrepreneurism. They become involved in their education, see the relevance of life-long learning to their daily lives, and are encouraged to complete high school and become college and career ready in STEM-related disciplines.

Janet Lorden is Executive Director of the STEM Garden Institute.

Back to newsletter