Innovative science and math lessons are both tasty and self-supporting

Published: Thursday, January 16, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 16, 2003 at 1:14 a.m.
OK. Here's the trick: Teach the nature of matter, algebraic thinking, "kitchen chemistry," spatial geometry, data analysis and probability to a bunch of 10-year-olds. Make sure they are gifted but need a touch more motivation. Manage to accomplish this with little money.
And then get them to eat their classroom work. Or, at the very least, sell it.
This is what Celia Phipps and Bunnie James have pulled off at Norton Elementary School, and from a visitor's perspective, there is no trick to it at all other than giving the kids a creative, fun and exciting hands-on project that effectively teaches science and math and economics. It's every educator's dream.
After two years of writing grants and soliciting donations of goods, services and expertise, the two enrichment teachers' hydroponic greenhouse project is off and running. In fact, it's running so spectacularly that the first harvest of bushels of lettuce, greens and herbs will begin Friday, 39 days after the first seeds were planted.
The excitement of the kids in the greenhouse is palpable. They eagerly seek out "their" planter, and measure the stems. They make drawings and describe the structure of the leaf. They compare these notes with last week's measurements. They calculate the volume of the planters (hint: they hold 1.25 gallons of soil). A few take pride in measuring and mixing the fertilizer, while others, partnered with second-graders, show off their new-found knowledge.
While the kids think it's fun, the teachers know they are really absorbing the technology for research, marketing and advertisement of Florida agricultural products. That's a weighty goal, but one that will satisfy Sunshine State Standards and prepare the children for that all-important FCAT testing, which assesses how well schools teach the basics.
Funding was slow at first Phipps and James started writing grants in 2000. They were turned down on their first attempts, but Phipps' "li'l dream" was resurrected when grant approval came through in October 2001.
Two Florida Ag in the Classroom grants provided $8,500 and $4,000 to purchase the greenhouse and equipment. Grants from the Alachua County Farm Bureau ($700 for consumable supplies), the Gainesville Chamber of Commerce ($250 for heaters) and parent donations (more than $800) came in. Additional donations were contributed in honor of family of Richard Robert Mazza, a bicyclist who was killed by a drunk driver in 2001 and who had children at Norton.
Invaluable assistance, advice and plants came from Bob Hochmuth, Suwanee County Extension agent for the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, and indisputably the state's expert on hydroponics.
Phipps had learned about the Verti-Gro greenhouse system from a friend, and visited a Marion County greenhouse using the technology. She deemed it "perfect" for the school project.
Ground-breaking for the 15-by-30-foot greenhouse was last March but it was not completed until some time in the summer. It is made of aluminum framework covered with heavy-duty clear plastic and has a poured concrete floor. The area is fenced for security, and two concrete "teaching tables" (picnic benches) are set up, complete with umbrellas when the sun gets hot.
The temperature inside is controlled by thermostats which turn on heaters when it gets too cold, keeping the temperatures about 18 degrees warmer inside than out; and - in the summer - a "swamp cooler" that blows humidified air when it gets too hot. A shade cloth is also used over the roof to reduce sun-generated heat, but allows enough light to filter in for good growth.
The growing system uses expandable polystyrene stackers about 9 inches wide and 8 inches tall; they look like small square Styrofoam coolers. They are stacked on top of one another, but at an angle, allowing plants to grow in each of the four corners. There are 8 stackers on each pole, which rotates to allow plants to get equal amounts of sunlight, and four rows in the greenhouse.
The plants grow in a soil-less mixture - seeds are started in vermiculite and coconut fiber; the seedlings are then transplanted into perlite to mature - and are fed by nutrients pumped through the medium three times a day. The special liquid fertilizers - one is 15-0-0, the other is 5-10-25 - are mixed in a 55-gallon drum about every four days. PVC pipes carry the nutrients to the top plant, where it drips down and through the entire stack. A bucket at the boom collects the excess liquid, which then flows outside to a retention basin area.
"It's a clean operation and there is a less chance for disease, particularly if we keep it dry," Phipps said.
And the plants can be grown organically, James add, saying when necessary, they will they use chemical-free pest- and disease control: baking soda as a fungicide, against powdery mildew; and soap and oil as a pesticide, particularly if whitefly invades the enclosed space.
Crops grew quickly Seeds of lettuce and small transplants of a variety of culinary herbs were planted Dec. 9. Much to everyone's astonishment, the lettuces are ready for their first harvest this week already.
They plan on beginning their first cutting Friday, selling gallon bags of mixed greens for $3.50 to teachers, parents and students. The idea is to make the greenhouse operation self-supporting, Phipps said.
Fifth-grader Lindsay Avila stops measuring just long enough to say the schoolwork is fun, and Cody Sprigg says he is learning "how to handle plants." Does he like vegetables? No, not many he says, but he does like lettuce, particularly the ones he is growing. Second-grader Zach Cronin is watching his Big Buddy do his classroom work, and thinks it's neat.
Next on the growing menu will be tomatoes, squash and more herbs. "And we are creating little gourmands here," Phipps said. "They turn their noses up to 'plain' basil, preferring the lemon basil."

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