PLANTS, LLC Partners with WVU Extension on NASA WV Space Grant

Award will Support Development of Hydroponics Curriculum for Grades 4-5 STEM Learning

Fourth and fifth graders in Ohio County and throughout West Virginia will learn about hydroponics as an alternative crop production technique through a STEM education project funded by the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium. The award titled, Hydroponics Curriculum for Grades Four and Five STEM Learning (Hydroponics) will provide students in upper elementary grades hands-on STEM learning opportunities through a series of six hydroponics lessons.

The team leading this project illustrates the benefits of partnerships that bring WVU Extension specialists together with small business entrepreneurs with technical expertise. Karen Cox, Ohio County WVU Extension agent brings her expertise in agriculture and natural resources to show how the Hydroponics Education program can be integrated into Extension’s educational resources for youth. Laurie Ruberg, Ph.D., CEO of PLANTS, LLC, has extensive experience using the technology and research available from NASA to create STEM learning tools and activities. This project supports both Extension and NASA education goals by connecting youth to information and knowledge that enables them to change their lives and improve their communities. The Hydroponics project will also align with the NASA Human Exploration Mission goals as it will introduce participating youth to space biology research conducted on the International Space Station.

“The Hydroponics curriculum development project will address an observed need for access to garden based learning for youth who do not have access to soil or land,” Ohio County Extension agent Karen Cox explains.

As Ruberg explains, “The Hydroponics project will get kids collecting and sharing data while designing, building, and testing soilless agriculture systems. Students will be able to see how their hydroponics parallel NASA Space Station Live: Cultivating Plant Growth videos.”

A review of existing Extension 4-H resources on hydroponics shows that materials exist at the high school level, but no 4-H materials are available for grades four and five. Creating this hydroponics curriculum so that it is available in digital format would be an innovative step for the West Virginia 4-H program. Disseminating this resource digitally to 4-H and school groups will greatly increase access to this material for underserved and diverse populations in urban areas who may not act access to traditional garden based learning programs.

Potential impact from this project includes: Improved engagement of youth in STEM learning opportunities, improved engagement in school in general, and increased interest in STEM based fields. We also anticipate improved consumption of fruits and vegetables by youths as well as increased home production of produce among families that do not have a yard. This in turn will improve food security, family engagement and support, and help to reduce nutritional deficits experienced by lower income families.

Some of the questions that students will be exploring during their hydroponic activities are:
• Can hydroponic crops be grown organically?
• What effect do different types of lighting have on plant growth, development, and taste?
• What type of hydroponic system and crop planning could be used to feed a family on a year-round basis?
• What are the input costs and output values for growing produce year round using a hydroponic system?

One of the key learning goals of the Hydroponics project is to guide students to collect consistent and accurate data about their hydroponic crops and production systems. This is an important practice for all types of STEM investigations and is a critical element of the Hydroponics project.

Three partners on this project share a mission to promote health, wellness, and positive change for all West Virginians. PLANTS (Plant Lessons and eNgaging Technology Systems) was established in 2013 as a way to respond to teacher requests to help set up hydroponic systems in their classrooms. Teachers expressed interest in hydroponics as a way to engage students in science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics (STEAM) topics. The WVU Extension Service is a state agency charged with developing and teaching best practices for sustainable agriculture while working on a variety of levels to foster community improvement. Try This WV is a non-profit devoted to helping West Virginians improve their health through healthy eating and physical activity—hydroponics supports these goals by helping families grow edible plants on a year-round basis.