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Home Blogs Laurie Ruberg Remake Learning by Getting Students Involved in Hydroponics

Remake Learning by Getting Students Involved in Hydroponics

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Written by lruberg45!
13 Dec 2013
NASA will be setting up portable plant growth experiments on Earth's moon to find out how plants respond to the radiation levels of the stark lunar surface. Ultimately, these experiments will help humans find out whether any forms of life as we know it could survive in an engineered moon station. I have been working with teachers at two different school systems to set up hydroponic systems to find out if growing plants in human engineered, portable growth systems makes plants more interesting to students.

Diigging Deeper into STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) with Plants
Working with the educators, curriculum and technology specialists at these two western Pennsylvania school districts has sharpened my interest in plants. I see plants as complementary biotechnology systems that provide beauty, air exchange, in many cases food, and incremental measurements of time. I share my office and home with plants. Flowering and food production plants are in my yard at home, and now garden lettuce and herbs are growing in a simple hydroponic system in my basement. Because of my work with the NASA Advanced Life Support research on previous curriculum development projects, I view plants as a part of a healtlhy living and working environment. With hydroponic systems, it can be challenging to set up a set of water-based irrigation channels for plants in a closed system that is 100 percent leak proof.  Here are two contrasting results from 2 hydroponic tables set up side-by-side at one of the intermediate (grades 3-4) schools.
The leaf lettuce shown in the image above has successfully grown in
its human engineered habitat, and it is ready for harvesting. Over the
course of its eight weeks of growth, the lettuce has received enough
light, nutrients, water, carbon dioxide, oxygen, and warmth to
germinate and grow. The next step will be for the indoor gardeners
to harvest their crop, safely handle it, and consume it.
 The hydroponic channel system shown above is growing the same kind of lettuce as shown in the image on the left; however, the plant growth in the system above has been inhibited by problems with the water-based nutrient flow system. The plants shown above germinated at the same time, but without an adequate and consistent flow of water and nutrients, the plants have not been able to thrive.

As the photos clearly illustrate, an indoor, engineered hydroponic growth system has to function well to bring the plant its basic requirements.  A leak-free system results in a successful harvest--productive plants and ultimately happy people who can enjoy their beautiful and nutritious harvest. As a partner with the schools, I set up a parallel, but smaller hydroponic system in my basement at home.  Although I did not have a problem with leaks in my hydroponic system, I did have an unexpected problem that temporarily inhibited my plants from growing at a rate that was expected. Below are before and after photos of my plants.  See if you can guess what deficiency were islowing down my plants from their normal growth rate.

BEFORE: These are images of Mesclun variety leaf lettuce plants
photographed at different time periods.  In the photo above,
the lettuce is at 6 weeks from germination. You can see that the
plants are splindly and the leaves are thin. I could see that the
plants were not getting enough light. I thought I had planned
the lighting and spectrum quality for the plant types and square
area, but I had underestimated the amount of light that the plants
need. The plant growth levels and leaf quality showed that the
lighting was inadequate.
AFTER: The image above of the Mesclun sweet salad lettuce mix shows that
the plants have gotten more light. You can see the density of growth
in the lettuce leaves. The lettuce crop is growing in six conttainers of
clay pellets that sit in a 6 gallon bin of water that is kept moving with
an aquarium pump. The water reservoir includes two air stones. The
additional LED light is shown below in a photo taken separately. You
can see how different the plants look under the LED blue/red spectrum.

Lettuce in LED light
At left is an image of the Mesclun lettuce growing under the red/blue LED lighting.  This photo was taken on the same day and time as the photo above at right.  Does the different lighting show different features of the plant leaves and textures?  How might changing the lighting allow you to see different qualities in plants?

Looking more closely at the plants in the photo of the Musclun lettuce above and at left, while I solved one problem, I may have another problem affecting the quality of the plants.  Can you guess what this might be?

Let's dig deeper into plant science to find out more on this topic...

This project is partially funded by the Sprout Foundation through a SPARK grant to South Fayette School District. 

To learn more about the Sprout Foundation go to
Last update (16 Dec 2013)


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