(Patrick D. Rosso/Boston.com/2013)
Something is growing in Uphams Corner and it doesn’t even need dirt.
At the Salvation Army Kroc Center area students are learning how to grow plants and vegetables using hydroponics. The after-school program, made possible through a two-year, $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, just started at the center, but center staff hopes it becomes a regular program.
“For us it’s all about going green and teaching the community how to survive,” said Marisol Ayala, the education manager at the Kroc Center, located on Dudley Street.
The program, being led by Mike Barnett, a Boston College professor, and supported by STEM Garden Institute, aims to get students excited about science and teach them how to grow nutritious veggies.
“There’s really nothing more excited than planting something and watching it grow,” said Barnett. “We also want to get the kids eating healthy. If they aren’t familiar with the vegetable on their plate they won’t eat it.”
From basil to kale, the students, ages 6-12, have been setting up their own hydroponic towers at the center. Eventually the Kroc will host a planting tower in its lobby, 5 tower systems in its greenhouse, and 32 student built tower systems in its upstairs education center. Some of the vegetables are taken home by the students and the rest are used in the Kroc’s café and culinary classes.
“The science is a really important component,” said Ayala. “They get to learn about nature and see how it all works, from the sun to the water.”
The hydroponic system, a soilless planting process that uses mineral nutrient solutions and water, has many advantages especially in the Northeast. The growing system can be stacked vertically, allowing for more plants in smaller spaces and because it uses lights and is inside plants can be grown year-round.
“We’re really trying to get the kids excited about science through science research,” said Barnett. “I think we’ve got them hooked.”
Students were visibly excited Monday afternoon as they set up their growing towers and plotted what plants they’d like to harvest. Although many of the students said their favorite part of the program is the harvesting and growing, the after-school program also includes curriculum courses, teaching the students not just how to grow the plants, but about the plants.
“I like when we get to harvest then eat it,” said Princess Sawyer-Rodriguez, a 10-year-old from Dorchester. “We also learned about what fruits and vegetables are good for you and about their nutrients.”
“I really like watching it grow,” said NJ Sawyer-Rodriguez, Princess’ 12-year-old brother. “It’s cool to see how the roots grow.”
Students were divided up Monday, as some did classroom work and others constructed their planting towers.
Working in teams, 8- and 9-year-old students constructed their towers, free of directions with Barnett providing support.
“I like planting the things, but I also like the learning,” said Leslie Benoit, an 8-year-old from Dorchester. “Although the planting is probably the best.”
Right now the program is just getting its legs as Barnett and his team work out the kinks in the systems. Eventually Barnett plans to turn everything over to the Kroc to be run by center staff for years to come.
“Right now we’re developing the curriculum as we go,” said Barnett. “The grant was the start-up and the Kroc will eventually be running everything and hopefully we can get them excited about science.”
For more pictures of students working on their growing systems, click here.