No soil, no problem: Medford fourth graders launch into hydroponics project – Wicked Local

Every morning, Sean, a student in Donna Laskey’s fourth-grade class at the McGlynn Elementary School, checks on his plants. He waters them, measures them and keeps written notes on their progress. And sees it’s possible to grow lettuce, tomatoes and arugula without any soil at all. “It’s weird because it grows without soil, but it works and it’s fun at the same time,” Sean said last Thursday morning. “And you don’t have to put chemicals in, so there’s nothing attacking it.” Laskey’s students have embraced the role of guinea pigs for hydroponics — an increasingly popular method of urban farming — in the Medford schools. A seven-student Hydroponics Committee is responsible for nurturing the plants, which are set up across the hall from Laskey’s third-floor classroom. One committee member, Alex, outlined the process: An air pump pushes water through tubes with small holes into a bed of rockwool pellets, where the water drips out and is absorbed by the plants’ roots. The pellets, Alex’s classmate Isaac explained, keep the plants in place. A fan simulates wind to make the roots sturdier, while grow lights hang overhead and mimic the sun. The project began February 4, according to Sophia, the committee’s official record-keeper, and it has been a process of trial and error ever since. “We put too much seeds in the rockwool so then they started growing together and didn’t have enough space,” Sophia said of the lettuce. “They got too leggy.” As humans take over more land and pollute more water, farmers are turning to methods like hydroponics to make the most of limited space, save water and avoid the use of chemicals. To help her students understand the problem, Laskey gave them vats of water contaminated with mud, rocks, leaves, Styrofoam, paint and vegetable oil, and told them to get creative. “I said, ‘Clean the water,’” Laskey said. “We found out how hard it is to clean a dirty river, so don’t pollute it. That’s the bigger message.” Laskey has been working on the project with Rocco Cieri, science coordinator for the Medford Public Schools. Laskey and Cieri have received guidance from the Little Brook Logging and Garden Center in Saugus, and received a $400 grant from the Medford Educational Foundation that they have yet to use. Last week, Laskey’s classroom also acquired a single fish for a small aquaponics project, whereby the fish — named Ivan by the students — will produce fertilizer to grow wheatgrass and radish sprouts. Meanwhile, Norman Rousseau’s biotechnology class at the Medford Vocational Technical High School has been piloting a much larger aquaponics project using a 400-gallon fish tank. Laskey and Rousseau plan to connect with the culinary program at the Voke to ensure the food they grow has tangible, edible benefits for other people. “We’re piloting it for the city with the thought that the middle school can then do it,” Laskey said. “The more we introduce it down here, then as we go up, we can build on it.” Wherever the project leads for Medford, it has already made an impact at the McGlynn. “I love this project,” said Kathleen, another committee member. “We all work together to plant and we all had special parts in this project, and so far it’s really fun.” Laskey’s students have learned by making mistakes. They have poured time and energy into the project, Laskey said, because they have been afforded room to make those mistakes. “You think about the things you’ve learned that have meant the most to you,” Laskey said. “You didn’t read it in a book. You did it because you tried it and you fell a couple times, and you did it better the next time.” Laskey’s students have killed a few plants over the last two months, while wayward students from other classes have been unable to resist touching the plants as they walked by — leading to the demise of some lettuce. “We don’t want to give any names,” Sophia said. Slowly but surely, though, the plants are growing, and the students are proud of what they created through their own hard work. “Not one of them ever thought about growing lettuce or tomato — they couldn’t care less about eating a tomato,” Laskey said. “But they have a vested interest in this. It’s theirs. They own it.”

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