Hooked on Hydroponics

By Eve Pranis

"We had already enjoyed conducting GrowLab curriculum activities and felt ready to expand our growing experiences to some new areas," reports Wichita Falls, TX, teacher Linda Bishop. Her fourth grade students decided to try hydroponics (growing plants without soil). First they did some research, then contacted a local commercial hydroponic lettuce grower for advice. With his support, the students designed a PVC pipe and pump setup for growing lettuce hydroponically in their school greenhouse. "Students work in groups of four to monitor the system and deal with problems that arise," says Linda. "When we discovered that we had fungus on our lettuce, for example, each group chose a slightly different approach to problem-solving." One group used the computer to contact and request advice from a county Extension agent. Another group went to resource books for information. Some students tried using organic fungicides such as vinegar, and recorded changes and results on the computer. Yet another batch of kids made a slide show about the entire process. "Students successfully solved the fungus problem and now enjoy abundant healthy lettuce crops," says Linda. Ongoing sales of lettuce to parents and teachers -- promoted by student-made signs with the reminder: "Don't leaf without our lettuce" yield funds for new seeds and supplies.

"Don't let lack of experience or familiarity with hydroponics deter you," advises Evelyn Tennenbaum, a Brooklyn, NY, Special Education teacher. "I learned with my students, and we are still learning together, despite the fact that I have been exploring hydroponics for three years." Limited by funds and space, Evelyn's students constructed their own hydroponic system from a 2-liter soda bottle, then germinated vegetable and herb seeds in rockwool cubes, later inserting young seedlings into a hole in the top of the unit. Since they had no pumps, they decided to shake the bottle several times daily to provide aeration, Evelyn notes. This sparked questions and ultimately an experiment on how roots and plants responded to different levels of aeration.

Things grew so well, reports Evelyn, that the students began a business selling hydroponically grown basil (complete with recipes), then created additional soda-bottle growing systems to sell to teachers, parents, and other students. "We eventually needed an adding machine to total our earnings!" she says.

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