While many elementary-schoolers can be found playing video games or watching YouTube after school, 8-year-old Levion spends his afternoons building irrigation systems and monitoring water and temperature levels with the precision of a professional scientist.
Levion is a participant of the hydroponics program at Ocean Bay Cornerstone Community Center, one of four community centers that The Child Center of NY operates in under-served communities on the Rockaway peninsula.
Hydroponics is the practice of growing plants in a nutrient-rich water solution instead of soil.
It’s also an opportunity for students in this under-resourced section of Queens to gain hands-on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) experience — opportunities that are sorely lacking for students like Levion, as are grocery stores that sell nutrient-rich produce at reasonable prices. Growing a hydroponic garden is a way to meet both these needs.
“Hydroponics is a win-win for our young people and families,” says Program Director Deborah Hoyle, Ph.D. “It started with the idea that this community is a food desert: Families here don’t have the same food choices that most of us have. Fresh produce is scarce and extremely expensive. When cash-strapped families have to make their dollars stretch, fresh produce is often the thing they put back on the shelf because they just can’t afford it.
“At the same time, this community is also a STEAM desert. That’s a shame because studies show one of the best ways to ignite long-term academic interest in STEAM is through community-based programs that offer hands-on experience. So I decided that we should grow a hydroponic herb garden right here at Ocean Bay — and our elementary and middle-schoolers should be the ‘scientists’ overseeing it.”
Indeed, treating the students like real scientists has been a core component of the program. “One of the rules is that if you’re going to participate in hydroponics, you have to use hydroponic language,” Dr. Hoyle explains.
Now the children talk about irrigation and germination rates as easily and knowledgeably as if they were talking about their favorite TV show. They also have internalized scientific concepts, taking and recording careful measurements, calculating growth, and balancing pH levels.
“All these factors work together to get the children to see themselves as scientists,” says Dr. Hoyle. “It allows them to say, ‘I would like this job. … I would like to work in botany, or manufacture irrigation tools. It teaches them to think big and get in the habit of thinking about their education and career goals.”
The program started in October, and today, it is an impressive operation. Savory lettuce, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, sprouts, and various herbs are planted in a greenhouse-like structure and kept hydrated by a Claber reservoir irrigation system, which the students have become adept at using. The resulting produce is given to students in the center’s culinary arts program, providing them fresh ingredients to cook with. Come summer, community members will be able to visit the center and bring produce home to their own families — which makes participants like 8-year-old Anyelis extremely proud. “I hope to grow strawberries that I can take home to make strawberry pie for the first time! I love growing and planting. “
In addition to being scientists, participants also have taken on the role of writer: Together they created an instructive DIY booklet, so that other students can make their own garden at home. The book is complete with a glossary of all the hydroponic terms that once seemed so foreign but now are par for the course, and the students continually update it to reflect newfound knowledge and practices.
Dr. Hoyle notes that creating the booklet also allowed for the “A” part of “STEAM” (arts), as it gave students the opportunity to draw and take photographs. “There is always a STEAM connection. This was the perfect project to pull it all together.”
As excitement about the garden has spread, the number of students working on it continues to grow. “I am part of the next group that is building and engineering the tube irrigation system for the greenhouse,” 8-year-old Adan told us excitedly. “I love club days because we get to learn so much about plant life. It is helping me in school because now I know what my teacher is trying to teach us. When you get to do it yourself, you really understand what it’s all about!”