This past school year, KidsGardening had the exciting opportunity to work in collaboration with the National Farm to School Network and The Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation on the Gro More Good Hydroponics Pilot Project which resulted in the creation of the Exploring Hydroponics Guide.
Hydroponics in short is growing plants by supplying all necessary nutrients in the plant’s water supply rather than through soil. From an educational standpoint, it provides a lot of interesting opportunities to teach kids about plant needs and gives them the chance to investigate ways we can use engineering and technology to grow plants in nontraditional settings. They get the chance to explore ways to grow plants in challenging environments and think about how this type of growing technique might be used to meet the needs of our current and future food systems. From a student’s perspective, it is just plain fun too.
As part of this partnership, just like the 15 pilot sites, I had the chance use the guide and an AeroGarden Farm Plus system with the fourth grade students at our school garden and you may remember I shared a bit about our experiences in a blog in the fall. I kicked off each session by taking an anonymous vote on paper, asking students “Do plants need soil to grow?” and not surprisingly, a majority of students said yes. Many times to simplify teaching plant needs, kids learn soil is one of those needs rather than learning that soil provides the needs of water, nutrients and place to grow to the plant. It was awesome to watch their amazement as our plants quickly grew in the hydroponic unit (much faster than the lettuce growing outside) and really be able to demonstrate for them that you can in fact provide for the needs of plants without soil. We then tied that into lessons about what hydroponics mean for growing plants for increasing populations and in challenging environments like in urban centers, deserts, Antarctica and even on the moon.
I just want to mention here, that I always make sure to include in these lessons that soil is very important and share the wonder of how perfectly it is designed to naturally meet the needs of plants. I place the emphasis on using hydroponics in situations where we might need to look for alternate solutions (including environments with challenges such things as water scarcity, low land availability, and temperature extremes) and the benefits hydroponics can offer in those solutions. My absolute favorite finding from the feedback shared by the Gro More Good Hydroponic pilot programs we worked with was that they found working with the hydroponic systems in the classroom increased the interest in and enthusiasm for their outdoor gardens too. Because it was regularly accessible and because of the faster growth rate, the gardens proved to be a great hook to get kids excited about gardening. How cool is that? You can read more about the highlights of the pilot program from the National Farm to School Network.
The Exploring Hydroponics Guide offers 5 lessons (with 3 distinct learning activities in each) targeting 3rd through 5th grade. We include suggestions for using with younger and older students too. The focus is on hands-on exploration and real world application. It also includes an extensive appendix offering hydroponic basics for anyone new to this type of system. The pilot programs used a prefabricated hydroponic system, but in the guide we also share ideas on how to build your own systems too. I want to make sure to give a shout out to Joreen Hendry, Eve Pranis, and Victoria Beliveau who authored the original KidsGardening Exploring Classroom Hydroponics publication many years ago which laid the ground work on these easy (and inexpensive) DIY systems.
You can download the Exploring Hydroponics guide for free both on the KidsGardening website and the The National Farm to School Network website. We hope that you find it to be a useful resource to add to your youth garden library.