Thursday, March 3, 2016

Lessons from hydroponics - pt. 1

     It's no secret to those who work with me, that I get bored and change gears pretty quickly, probably at the same speed as my students. It really works for me though, because I LOVE writing curriculum and developing new ways of teaching things.  Since the big ALS Bucket Challenge was a huge focus last year, I thought my students would want to work with wood and build something else this year.  I was PREPARED, I bought TOOLS,  I scavenged WOOD, and then I met my students and they were not really into it. (Side note - they are actually VERY INTO programming this year and making their own games) Thankfully I had another plan, but it wasn't one I was too confident about - HYDROPONICS.
     I began the year buy making sure my teaching partner was on board.  She was new to us, but a veteran teacher from out of state.  As much as I can tell someone that I think fast and move quickly, I'm also aware that not everyone else wants to work that way.  Thankfully she is game for about anything as long as it positively impacts kids. I attended a PBL workshop within our district through BIE.  It was great, because while I frequently rely on PBL, it was nice to have the time to develop something.  Unfortunately my partner was moving to SC at that point so she had to trust that I was going to get things organized in a way that worked for her too.
     My prior knowlege related to hydroponics was limited.  We had a store about 3 miles from the school that sold things (The store is called The Urban Garden).  I had wandered in out of curiosity and thought it might be cool to expand upon what our primary grades are doing with gardening.  I knew there was water involved, and lights, and I could purchase things because I had received a chunk of classroom money when we presented our Bucket Challenge at a STEM fair last year.  My plan was to talk to the man who owned the store, see what my students could build themselves, and what had to be purchased, present the whole thing like a giant experiment because I knew ZERO about feeding hydroponics and only slightly more about ph levels.
    The PBL plan came together pretty quickly. We were going to read The Lemonade War because the kids set up competing businesses and loads of economic words like profit and marketing are mentioned (ELA/SS component). Next we would begin our year (out of order from the rest of the district, but my kids to tend to leave the classroom so no problem) with Mixtures and Solultions (science component).  The thought was that mixing the solution of water and measuring in the nutrients (and the whole ph level testing) all connected in there.  For math we needed to get into metric conversion pretty quickly (we thought - turns out we're good without it, but it was a connection) for the math component.  The culminating activity was to set up and market a business, perhaps even a farmer's market at car riders, to sell our lettuce, basil, spinach, whatever we grew, and use the profits to purchase other items needed in our 5th grade STEM program.
     So we had a plan, but I really had no background in this topic.  It was intimidating, I'm not going to lie.  If my partner, Kristen Izzo, hadn't been 100% on board I could have easily backed out, but we would have really missed out.  I met with the store owner (we call him Hydroponic Dude) and he helped me design a sketch for the kids.  No measurements, just an idea about more of a homemade build instead of an "out of the box" one that requires plugging in.  I took the drawing above to my students, and Mrs. Izzo's, and we had a meeting about what we were going to do, the basic parts, and gave everyone a copy of the drawing.  We determined the dimensions of each PVC pipe and made a list of the materials we would need to build. We waited a couple days for the Hydroponic Dude to gather our box of required materials (light, nutrients, airpump, etc) and I went to the home building store and got materials from there as well.  FINALLY we started building the design.

We used the PVC pipe cutter Home Depot gave us last year for the Bucket Challenge, and we started measuring and cutting.

     This was October, and we had just had floods throughout our city.  Thankfully we were only affected by washed out roads, and modified school schedules.  We missed about a week of school, but used our odd schedule days to get this finished. We assigned groups to work, and rotated them out into the hallway to get things done.  We were VERY THANKFUL that our fourth grade classes were tolerant of the noise.

The base starting to take shape.  The black connectors and stands were purchased from The Urban Garden to help us develop the shape. After the cross beams were put on (two missing in this picture) we laid a sheet of plywood across those.  Each corner would eventually have PVC pipe going up to the light rig (see below).
     We had already started seeds in the hydroponic cubes so we were ready for build day.  The pink insulation board had holes cut into it to hold the little black baskets.  The baskets hold the cubes and dip into the water so the roots can grow. 


Once it was all set up we added water into brick mason tubs.  There is also an airpump that goes into each tube to add oxygen and move around the water.  We have to keep track of how much water we are using and add in nutrients for each gallon of water.  The pink insulation board floats in these with the plants.

     We have two setups (one for each class). Our total cost was about $850.00 for two.  Initially they were set up in a sunroom area we have in the building. The classes go by on their way to the cafeteria or out to recess. The thought was that students in all grade levels would be able to watch the lettuce grow.  The fire marshall, however, asked us to move it. Not because of electrical issues, or anything, but because even though that part of the hall is about 5 feet wider than the hall it feeds into, it could be an obstacle in case of a fire.  It was eventually moved to a classroom, and then moved a third time into our own classroom.

Part 2 will discuss what we did next.  Stay tuned.