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Hydroponic Gardening: Hands-On Learning at the Kroc Center

Hydroponic Gardening at the Kroc Center 3/26/13Kroc Center Youth Growing Food

Let's ask a group of 10-12 year-olds what they know about "hydroponics." Likely it's a word they don't know and certainly have had no experience with. "What? What did you say?"

At Dorchester’s Kroc Center, youth from the after school program would give a completely different answer. They are learning hydroponics hands on - how to grow plants in "water." Janet Lorden from the STEM Garden Institute is their teacher, showing them how to build the "window farms" and teaching them the basic science behind the growing process.

Meanwhile, the Kroc Center’s Marisol Ayala keeps a close watch over the students, all the while learning about hydroponic gardening herself.


Marisol Ayala from the Kroc Center on the left and Janet Lorden from the STEM Garden Institute on the right. In between are a group of youth holding plants that are about to be transplanted into the Hydroponics Garden at the back of the Kroc Center (located in the police booth).

Marisol Ayala is the Kroc Center's Education Manager. She handles all of the educational components there including Kids FEAST, English Language Learner classes, summer with rj and more. She is also the Manager of the Performing Arts programs such as the dance classes, music classes (including instruments and vocal) and art. She has been with the Kroc Center since September 2011.

Janet and Gerry Lorden co-founded the Stem Garden Institute in 2010. Their mission is to deliver STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) curriculum and innovation based learning to students (K-12) through a sustainable platform of hydroponic gardening. The need they say is greater than ever to teach young people how to grow their own food: worldwide food shortages, health and nutrition issues, opportunity to grow organic and other reasons.

On the afternoon of March 26, 2013, the Kroc Center youth, seated at large round tables, could see the plants growing in the "window farms" they had setup several weeks ago. Just last week, they had harvested their first crop from a different hydroponic garden - young greens only six weeks old.

Hydroponic Gardening at the Kroc Center 3/26/13 Hydroponic Gardening at the Kroc Center 3/26/13

With everyone awaiting Ms. Lorden's arrival, the window of opportunity was open for asking the kids about their gardening experiences. Fresh in their minds were memories of setting the growing process in motion. They had watched the seeds sprout, the plants grow and they had experienced what it was like to harvest the food. Kroc Center staff then cooked the harvest and everyone enjoyed the food. Finally and triumphantly, the students took their produce (what each child had picked) home to their families.

Hydroponic Gardening at the Kroc Center 3/26/13 Hydroponic Gardening at the Kroc Center 3/26/13

Getting to Know the Young Gardeners

Marisol got their attention and said: "Just ignore Nancy. She is going to be taking pictures." But Nancy was more interested in talking with them and finding out just how much were they engaged in the gardening process. "So how many of you like growing plants?"

One young man quickly raised his hand: "To watch the stages." Not only had he understood that transformations were taking place over time, but he was intellectually able to describe them as "stages." "What are the stages?" I asked. "What do you imagine is happening as the plants grow? How does a plant begin to grow?"

Everyone knew the answer. "With a seed." That led to talking about the shapes of seeds: Round, oval (sesame), caraway (like a banana). And what about a mustard seed? Confusion quickly covered their faces. "Mustard?" You could see them imagining drippy yellow sauce on their hotdogs. "Mustard seeds?" "Did anyone ever hear about mustard seeds in the Bible?" Well, wouldn’t ya know. For one young lady, it now made sense. "They are very small and round."

Marisol entered the conversation? "What are these?" she asked, showing them the lima beans in her hands. "These are what we just finished experimenting with."
To have some fun, I asked them: "What do lima beans make?" They knew the answer! "More lima beans." Now for some thoughtful assessment. "So what are you eating when you eat a bean?" Didn't take too long to answer: "The seed," they said. "Exactly right. Isn't that interesting?"

"What about apples? If you eat an apple, are you eating the seeds?" That drew a lot of response: "Yes, no, yes, no." Stories came out about accidentally eaten apple seeds and what how they tasted. "Like almonds." How about cucumbers? Tomatoes? Do they have seeds? Yes, they knew the seeds were "in the middle."

Hydroponic Gardening at the Kroc Center 3/26/13 Hydroponic Gardening at the Kroc Center 3/26/13

More Botany for the Young

Back to the stages of growth. After you plant the seed, what happens? "It sprouts" But what does that really mean? If you were to look at the seed under a microscope, what would you see? It didn’t take long for them to say: "the roots and the stem."

One young man asked: "Do the roots help the plants grow?" So we talked about nutrients and plant food. And if the food is dissolved in the water, how does the plant food get into the plant? "Through the roots." Another youth asked: "If you were to cut open a sprout, what would you find inside? Would you find water inside?" Yes, indeed. Plants are full of water. "One of the best ways to get water is not to drink it but to eat vegetables. Lots of water is found in vegetables.

Plant the little seed in something that helps it grow. What is that? They all said: Soil and some said water, which is what they are learning - hydroponics, growing plants "in water." But water won’t keep the plant stable. What could you put in water to do that? They all knew the answer: "Rocks."

How do plants grow? The word "photosynthesis" was not foreign to them. Many had some idea of the chemical process - carbon dioxide, energy from the sun and it gives off oxygen. Not bad for such young scientists.

The final question seemed to demonstrate the extent to which their experiences with hydroponic gardening were leaving emotionally positive memories. "Do you think you could grow plants at home like this?" Their immediate answer was a resounding "Yes!"

Hydroponics Instructor Arrives

Hydroponic Gardening at the Kroc Center 3/26/13When Ms. Lorden arrived, they greeted her warmly. She opened a new box of "window farm kits," giving one to each of two groups. Some of the youth remembered how to assemble them from before and taught the others. Both groups completed their tasks successfully.

A smaller group of youth were given plants that were ready for transplanting into a more sophisticated hydroponics system. Outside to the rear parking lot is a police booth that is not currently in use - well, not true. It is now in use as a hydroponics garden. So that's were the group with plants in hand traveled for the transplanting.

One by one, Ms. Lorden showed them how to remove the fragile plants from their tiny growing pots. "Very gently," she cautioned. "The roots are delicate. Use your fingers to grasp the rock wool like this" and she showed them how to remove the plant without harming it. "Now place it into one of the open growing holes in the new system."

Every young gardener seemed excited and engaged. No one appeared bored. No one seemed to be impatiently wanting to be somewhere else. Walking with one of the young ladies, I had a chance to ask her how she felt. "I just love the plants."

Hydroponic Gardening at the Kroc Center 3/26/13 Hydroponic Gardening at the Kroc Center 3/26/13
Hydroponic Gardening at the Kroc Center 3/26/13 Hydroponic Gardening at the Kroc Center 3/26/13
Hydroponic Gardening at the Kroc Center 3/26/13 Hydroponic Gardening at the Kroc Center 3/26/13

National Science Foundation Grant

Opportunity for the hydroponics education comes from Boston College’s Prof. Mike Barnett who secured a $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to help local youths develop a gardening initiative using hydroponic growing. He is hoping to eventually open a farmer’s market in the area.

The Kroc Center does not get any of the grant money. However, all supplies needed for the program as well as STEM training costs are bourne by the NSF grant.

"Gardening is the ultimate hands-on science project, and the end result is absolutely delicious," Barnett, of BC's Lynch School of Education, said in a statement. "This project takes to a new level our efforts to teach the city’s children about science, technology, engineering and math, as well as nutrition, health, and economics."

Contact Information

Posted: April 11, 2013 Nancy J Conrad

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