Culturally-Responsive Hydroponics

Green Our Planet is a non-profit organization based in Nevada that promotes STEM learning, school garden education, and hydroponics in pre-K–12 schools across the country.

Currently, they collaborate with 100 programs across 16 states, with most of the sites being in Las Vegas. The cultural backgrounds of students are diverse, with a large majority being a part of a Latin American or Native American demographic.

While Green Our Planet has been teaching hydroponics in public schools since 2017, their new Culturally-Responsive Hydroponics Framework celebrates students’ cultural identities and integrates them into what they grow and how they do it.

We spoke with Chris Anderson, Hydroponics Program Manager and Educator, and Monica Gehrig, Curriculum and Professional Development Manager from Green Our Planet about the framework, how it was developed, and the intention for its implementation.

“A big part of our mission is to empower people to take responsibility for their food and for their interactions with the planet,” said Chris.

What is Hydroponics?

Simply put, hydroponics is the science of cultivating plants by providing essential nutrients to their roots via a solution, rather than through the soil.

Benefits of hydroponics include:

  • Plants can be kept indoors, allowing plants to be grown year-round
  • The systems are space-efficient – you can grow more food in less space!
  • Water is efficiently utilized
  • Plants can grow up to 2x more quickly than in soil
  • You can control all climate conditions and nutrient levels
  • You don’t have to worry about getting dirty since there’s no soil!

The 80-page framework builds upon their Hydroponics STEM curriculum and was developed by a cadre of Indigenous, Latine, and White educators in Northern New Mexico with the aim of empowering educators to apply to use hydroponics as an engagement tool to connect students to the land and their culture.

“The framework opens up our curriculum in new ways and invites teachers to co-create lessons with us on how to teach hydroponics and it makes it more collaborative. New topics can more easily be explored; now the curriculum can more deeply include things like social studies, the arts, public service,” said Chris.

The Culturally-Responsive Hydroponics Framework is thorough and thought-provoking yet leaves it open for educators to apply the concepts within the context that is appropriate for their community. Each unit poses a set of questions that can initiate discussions and exploration regarding cultural significance, regional considerations, suggested topics, suggested activities, and cross-curricular ties.

“The most important considerations were to provide the template for educators and other communities to weave their own unique culturally-responsive aspects into their lesson plans; that the content will enable all students to learn about hydroponics through their own culture, heritage and local conditions,” said Monica. “The learning will be tailored to their interest, needs, and beliefs. In this way, the framework celebrates the diversity of students and student-centered learning will affirm cultural identities and allow students to connect with one another.”

For example, in the section “How Hydroponics Relates to Your Life,” students can be prompted to think about how growing food hydroponically can connect them to their family and culture, and may approach this concept by inviting elders to share their opinions and knowledge about if the types of plants grown in the system will be beneficial to the community.

Another thought-provoking question presented is: Who owns water? As an important consideration when engaging in hydroponics, the framework helps students think about this essential element within a socio-political, geographic, and spiritual context, and provides an activity for creating a map of your local watershed and interviewing local stakeholders to understand policies around water.

Additional examples of culturally-responsive hydroponics include: 

  • Growing native, traditional, or medicinal herbs
  • Learning about local water sources, how they are formed, and the community’s relationship to them
  • Researching about ceremonial, food preparation, or practical uses of plants
  • Designing a hydroponics system that is adapted to the types of plants you would like to grow
Four kids learning about science using a hydroponics system

“Our goal is to set students up to explore, test things out, build new things, and really grab their attention and engagement through hands-on learning. Hydroponics is limitless, it’s based on your creativity,” said Monica.

Green Our Planet seeks to inspire youth to feel ownership in their learning, understand the world through a creative lens, and even get excited about pursuing hydroponics as a viable career path. With the framework, students learn how to grow plants hydroponically while responding to their needs. From there, kids can dive deeper by experimenting with engineering new systems, entrepreneurship, and even creating a business based on their hydroponics garden.

Over the years, schools that have participated in Green Our Planet’s hydroponics program have reported improvements in students’ test scores, behavior, engagement around STEM learning, and sense of responsibility, as well as parent engagement.

"I am honestly so grateful for all that Green Our Planet has done to encourage hands-on learning and offer knowledge that directly impacts their future,” said Casey Juliano, a teacher at Nate Mack Elementary in Las Vegas. “The pride and excitement our students feel maintaining the garden and even more strongly the hydroponics are so motivating and thrilling as a teacher.”

Students holding up bags of hydroponic lettuce
For anyone new to hydroponics, Monica and Chris reassure that it’s actually quite simple and easy! Watch the following videos to learn how to build a D.I.Y. hydroponics system:

Also, don’t miss out on Green Our Planet’s FREE educational events, including “Building Hydroponic Systems from Recycled Materials” on February 21! Register on their EventBrite page.

For more fun educational resources from Green Our Planet, check out their impressive collection of videos on their YouTube channel, including:

Learn more about and download the Culturally-Responsive Hydroponics Curriculum Framework.