A light pepper contrasts with the sweet smell of morning dew in a greenhouse in Michael Thomas’s seventh-grade science class, and there’s an electricity in the air that only excited children and ultraviolet lights can produce. A curious green ring encircles the tables where 20 young students are sitting, talking mostly about vegetables.
Since five years ago, Thomas and his seventh-grade classes at Ben Steele Middle School have been using hydroponics to grow all kinds of fruits, vegetables and herbs. Thomas then takes the garden and incorporates it into his daily lessons.
The goal is to encourage excitement and curiosity about what they are learning by getting students out of their books and into gardening.
“All kids are hands-on learners, and what’s more than growing your own plant,” Thomas said.
Hydroponics is the practice of growing plants without soil, usually in water and nutrient solutions. Each student grows their own plant, which they must then monitor and care for. Different plants require different conditions to grow, so there is a diverse range of experiences for each student. The majority of students chose to grow different types of lettuce, but a few chose to grow carrots, basil or even tomatoes. Some students had their plant thrive the first time and unfortunately some students had to start over when their plant did not survive.
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The excitement and buzz surrounding Mr. Thomas’s class is undeniable and remarkable. He has done the impossible and inspired his class to not only eat their fruits and vegetables, but eat them with pleasure.
“Ninety percent of what we grow is lettuce, but that’s still great,” says fifth-year student Lauren. “Most of the stuff we grow has a really peppery flavor for some reason,” she said with a laugh.
For some, it’s more than a class project, it’s something they’ve actually become very interested in, so much so that many will come in after or even before school to tend to their plant.
The final part of Mr. Thomas’ fifth period was on the human digestive system and how it can be affected by different foods. Although there was quite a bit of giggling, each student had an incredible understanding of their inner selves.
“It’s pretty cool that it’s a project that they start from scratch that they can then show off.” It is better than learning from a book. Sixth graders are even waiting until seventh grade to try,” Thomas said.
As expected, the hydroponics project requires a lot of funds. The students are constantly fundraising throughout the year and want to see it grow and rely on many donations from outside the school to keep the project going. Eventually, Mr. Thomas wants the project to expand to a farmers market and the school cafeteria. At least the cafe won’t have to spend money on pepper if it all works out.