South Fayette students learn to grow plants in water

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South Fayette students are learning they can grow leafy green vegetables inside even when there is powdery white snow outside.

A class of fourth-graders at South Fayette Intermediate School harvested lettuce Friday from two hydroponic tables.

Nikki Berkebile, 9, said that before learning about the tables, she'd thought you couldn't grow plants without soil.

"I was surprised," she said.

Students measured the length of roots and leaves and judged whether the plants were healthy.

Angel Edwards, 10, placed a ruler alongside a green leaf and found it was about 5½ inches long.

"I thought it would be a little bigger," she said.

Jacob Patterson, 9, said his Bibb lettuce sample was in good shape. "It's not pale green, and I felt it, and it felt like it was healthy," he said.

The lesson was part of the yearlong "Grow-It to Go" project funded by a $15,000 grant from the Spark Fund for Early Learning at The Sprout Fund in Pittsburgh.

South Fayette designed the hands-on project to teach children about indoor and outdoor gardens, with the aim of encouraging healthy food choices and sustainable food production.

Sprout program officer Mac Howison said the activities help young children to understand where food comes from and to realize that food has a source beyond the grocery store.

"Getting kids to think about that is sort of revolutionary because it changes the way we think about health and well being," he said.

South Fayette and the Fort Cherry School District are partnering to offer the program to their students in kindergarten through fourth grade, as a way to teach the combination of subjects known as STEAM -- science, technology, engineering, art and math.

Last week, South Fayette pupils explained how the hydroponic tables in their STEAM studio deliver nutrient-rich liquids to plant roots.

Michael Doman, 9, said tubes draw liquid from a bucket containing about 12 gallons of water mixed with 6 tablespoons of nutrients and carry it to a tray.

"The tray is slanted, so the water in the tray flows down and gets to every plant's roots," Michael said.

Leslie Landaverde, 10, said the liquid absorbs into pieces of rock wool, which look "like cotton candy," and the roots soak up the water from there.

"This cycles and cycles again and again," she said.

Tyler Yourich, 9, said one hydroponic table is lit by regular household light bulbs, and the other table has a grow light, "which is actually better for the plants."

Skylights above the tables add sunshine, too, he said.

Teacher Melissa Drake said some students have visited the Giant Eagle Market District in Robinson to see basil growing on a hydroponic table.

"We've been trying to show them you can not only grow hydroponically, but you can buy hydroponically as well," she said. "Students will say, 'In my ad, I saw that hydroponic tomatoes are on sale at Shop 'n Save.' So they're looking for it now, too, which has been cool."

The pupils touted the benefits of hydroponic vegetables. Leslie said they taste better and grow more quickly than soil-based plants. Tyler said they are healthier because growing indoors means you don't have to use pestcides.

Michael said growing the food inside means "bugs can't get to it, and they won't eat it."

Eventually, students will make portable hydroponic tables, and create instructions for them, for local families to grow produce at home.

Trisha Craig, the Fort Cherry curriculum director, said students have learned that hydroponic gardening has existed for thousands of years.

Later, pupils will learn about the local history of gardening and farming from people in the community, she said.

In the fall, Fort Cherry and South Fayette learned about sustainable gardening through a virtual field trip to Duke University's Duke Campus Farm in North Carolina.

In the spring, the nonprofit group Grow Pittsburgh will help guide the design and planting of outdoor gardens -- nine raised beds at South Fayette Intermediate School and a 2-acre plot on Fort Cherry school grounds.

South Fayette technology director Aileen Owens said plans are to seek local families to tend the garden over the summer.

Some produce eventually could be distributed to area residents or served in the school cafeteria, she said.

Also in the spring, South Fayette pupils will work with the Braddock Carnegie Library arts program and the Braddock Youth Project to create ceramic tiles illustrating their thoughts on nature and gardening.

The tiles will be placed in the garden, along with QR codes--digital barcodes that can be read by smartphones--to allow visitors to hear the children's descriptions of the garden.

"It's an art and poetry garden," Ms. Owens said, "but it's a kind of community education piece also."

Andrea Iglar, freelance writer:

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