In a room on the school's lower floor, sixth, seventh and eighth graders are planting cucumbers, cilantro, lettuce, tomatoes, parsley, kale, and more, all without soil, in a hydroponic lab.
The hydroponic method means growing plants without soil, using nutrient solutions in water as a substitute.
“It gives all-natural vegetables for students who've never even had or tasted lettuce,” said Laura Kushnir, a science teacher at Emerson and one of the student mentors for the program.
The students grow an average 40 to 50 pounds of vegetables each month, officials say. As part of the class, each student must also come up with a project they develop and present to parents.
Principal Michael Cerrono first approached science supervisor Fredrick Hurtado with his idea for a hydroponic garden two years ago.
“He brought me on board and wanted me to facilitate talks between our consultant—NY Sunworks--and the school,” Hurtado said. Sunworks provided the material for the program. Sunworks is a non-profit that builds innovative science labs in urban schools.
The Board of Education funded the program’s first phase. Both the board and grant money are funding the current second phase. Officials claim this is the only hydroponic garden in a New Jersey middle school.
How it’s done
Under careful supervision, the students use three methods for growing veggies: Nutrient Film Technique, tower gardens, and vine crops.
Each technique delivers nutrient water to the roots for the plants.
With NFT’s, the students place plants into a tray, tube, or “gutter,” separate from a nutrient reservoir. A pump then delivers fertilized water to the grow tray, creating a constant stream of nutrient solution. The plant roots then grow into this water.
In tower gardens, plant pot slots are vertically arranged along modules stacked to form a tower configuration. Nutrient water is then pumped to an outlet at the tower's top, falling into a basket delivering the water to plant roots.
Vine crops use connected twine to grow upwards instead of downwards in soil, as traditionally grown plans do. This allows the crops better exposure to light for growth, Hurtado said.
Construction for the program began in September 2016. The actual program began in February 2017. Eventually, teachers hope to have the students create their own hydroponic systems at home.
“All the produce here is given back to the community,” Hurtado said. “We're a not-for-profit. Whenever we have meetings with parents—parents’ night, parents’ breakfast—we give it back to the parents.” Students are also allowed to take the finished products home with them.
“I've never experienced something like this before,” said Stephanie Armengolt, 13, an eighth grader, on why she joined the hydroponic program last year. “It's exposing me to the new forms of technology and how it can benefit our environment. So I guess I just wanted to be part of something new.”
Armengolt's jobs involve checking the pH and electrical current for each plant, ensuring the plants are absorbing nutrients to survive. The pH checks are to ensure against any chemical imbalances, Armengolt said. “We make sure that it's within the right scale,” she added.
Growing plants hydroponically also has a greater benefit over more traditional methods, according to the students.
“By doing it this way, there's less space needed, because if you do it on soil, you need large spaces,” said Erica Gonzalez, 13. “Also, the plants are free from weeds, and it doesn't take as much work as if you do it on soil. Here, you can just use your hands, and they're not that heavy.”
The plants also have a higher yield production hydroponically, meaning they grow much faster than ones using soil.
They also use much less water than traditional field production, the students said.
When Erica first received an invite into the program, she said she had doubts at first. But “then I was like, 'It sounds cool,'” she said. “It's been amazing. I've learned how to actually take care of plants and learn how to eat more vegetables. Whenever I take them home, I actually eat it.”
Alyssa Navas, 12, a sixth grader, felt the program could “teach me more about responsibility, dealing with plants.” She said she could see a possible career working with plants.
“When I work here, it really does relax me,” Gonzalez said. “Like it doesn't make me all stressed about things. At the same time, I have to remember that I have to keep up with the pH and harvesting.”
“It's been fun, entertaining, and interesting,” said Emily De Oliveira, 13, who joined the program a few months ago. “You get to experience things you don't do at home. Doing things, from seedlings to germinating to NFTs and vine crops, it's fun.”
The program’s third phase will bring in a chef who will cook using the vegetables and teach the kids how to cook with produce, Hurtado said. And two more schools—Edison and Sara Gilmore--are set to receive labs in the future.
“We are expanding,” Hurtado said.
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