Our global population continues to increase and so must our food production. However, literatures indicate that fewer people have access to safe or sufficient food sources. This research is intended to address this problem, as we look at ways to increase middle school student interest in agriculture, including food production, distribution, and agricultural technology. With the use of an active vertical tower and a passive two-liter bottle hydroponic system, students were provided with the opportunity to grow and eat their own Buttercrunch lettuce in the classroom. Overall, it was found that students’ interest in, and understanding of, food production, distribution, and technology in agriculture increased following these project-based learning experiences. Though there are several factors that indicate the need for replication of this study in order to provide further support for its results, these findings are a promising start to help teachers introduce students to agriculture and encouraging students to learn alternate ways of food production.
The participants in this study consisted of seventh-grade middle school students in a class focused on Exploring Technology and College and Career Awareness. The school and county where the study took place is a mix of suburban and rural communities in the mountains of Utah. As a teacher I have a personal interest in hydroponics; this originates from my experiences volunteering on organic farms in New Zealand in 2009. Coming back to the United States, I was fascinated with horticulture and the different aspects of using technology to grow food. Additionally, living and teaching at a higher elevation in the mountains of Utah presents numerous challenges including growing season length, a cold climate, and soil challenges. These difficulties have encouraged me to look at hydroponics as a way to grow food, while also connecting it to the classroom. Experiential learning can be truly exciting, thought-provoking, and, most importantly, can empower students to be engaged in their education.
Research Goal, Method, and Outcome
Background and Research Question
Education about agriculture is now an integral part of school curricula in the American public education system. However, student engagement in learning about food production is on the decline. Youth participation in agricultural education programs has been dwindling in the United States and the world (Haruna et al., 2019). Vileisis (2008) suggests that individuals today are more disconnected than ever from how their food is grown and distributed. The current generation of students has a limited understanding of, or interest in, where their food comes from. To expand awareness of the importance of agriculture we examine ways to integrate agricultural education into core subject areas such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and others (Wooten et al., 2013). Integrating agricultural education into the career and technical education (CTE) subject area provides students the opportunity to learn about how food is grown and distributed, while also introducing a range of careers in the agricultural industry. One way to do this is to employ Project-Based Learning (PBL) (Cooper & Murphy, 2016; Klag, 2016, Larmer et al., 2015).
The problem focused on in this study is that students have a limited understanding of, or interest in, how food is grown and distributed. To increase knowledge and student participation in agricultural education, the study focused on using project-based learning (PBL) to give students experiences with specific agricultural techniques and to pique their interest in careers involving agriculture and technology. The primary research question was: How might PBL increase student interest in, and the understanding of, food production, distribution, and technology in agriculture?
Rationale: Problem and Suggested Solutions
There is a great need to educate people about food scarcity, even in developed, industrial nations. According to research completed by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) (2019b), approximately two billion people worldwide experience daily food insecurity; eight percent of them in North America and Europe. Their research points out that food insecurity is where individuals and communities lack regular access to nutritious, safe, and sufficient food. Urban growth, in particular, accelerates the loss of land that can be cultivated (Eigenbroad & Gruda, 2015; Pandey & Seto, 2015; Touliatos et al., 2016). This is particularly concerning when examining where food is produced and how it is transported. By one estimate, the average food product in the U.S. travels around 1,640 kilometers (1,019 miles) from production to plate (Weber & Matthews, 2008). Regarding the U.S., food insecurity had been declining since 2011 (USDA, 2018) but the COVID-19 pandemic has increased this insecurity. Wolfson and Leung (2020) found that 44 percent of low-income adults in the United States were food insecure in the second half of March 2020. Large swaths of the U.S. are considered “food deserts” or places where at least 33 percent of the population is more than one mile from a large grocery store (USDA ERS, 2015). The Food Empowerment Project (2019) identifies lack of transportation and economic forces driving grocery stores out of cities as causes and also points out that healthy food options are disproportionately absent in communities of color and low-income areas.
One immediate solution to address food scarcity and insecurity is to alternate growing practices, or use Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA). This entails modifying and manipulating the growing environment and nutrients of different food plants (Asaduzzaman, 2016; Cornell University, 2020; Despommier, 2013). Despommier (2013) points out that CEA has many advantages over traditional farming: agricultural runoff is eliminated, crops can be grown year-round, far less water is used, and CEA is not affected by destructive weather such as floods and drought. Additionally, CEA does not rely on soil and most importantly, it can be employed anywhere in the world. However, CEA is not as simple as traditional forms of agriculture. Successfully growing crops with CEA methods entails sound knowledge of chemistry, engineering, plant physiology, and a variety of skills (Cornell University, 2020). Hence, there is a need to integrate agricultural education across the school curriculum.
Probably the most well-known alternative growth method is hydroponics, or growing crops without soil (Gumble, 2015; Peckenpaugh, 2001; Sheikh, 2006). While the modern term comes from William Gericke (Gericke, 1937), there is evidence that the technique was used anciently in Babylon and by the Romans (Resh, 2013). Because of their versatility and complexity, hydroponic systems are ideal for introducing students to the science of agriculture while engaging them in a dynamic and engaging learning environment (Nicol, 1990).There are two common types of hydroponic systems, active and passive. In a passive system, the plant is placed in a growing media, usually rock wool, with a wick that is inserted into water which contains added nutrients. The second and most commonly used hydroponic system is an active system where nutrient solutions are actively passed over or through plant roots, typically using a pump system. Both systems can be used outside or indoors and can range from simple and inexpensive do-it-yourself models to expensive and complex systems. For this study, the 2-liter bottles constituted the passive system, and a vertical arrangement was employed as an active system.
Plant Rich Environments
Environmental education is associated with both academic and interpersonal benefits (Meidl & Ammentorp, 2019). Hydroponics is one way to bring these benefits indoors. The technique allows students access to agriculture year-round, provides essential greenery, and also offers healthy food options. Some institutions, such as hospitals, have recognized the benefits of gardens and green spaces (Franklin, 2012). Marcus and Francis (1998) found “a positive mood change after spending time in the garden–more relaxed, calmer, less stressed, more positive. Many referred to the pleasing contrast between the garden—open, sunny, colorful, natural—and the vinyl/fluorescent/hygienic atmosphere inside” (p. 335). Such a contrast can be noted in many schools as well.
Participants were seventh-grade middle school students in a class focused on Exploring Technology and College and Career Awareness. Students came from an affluent district in northern Utah, and were drawn from seven different class periods. They were assigned to either a passive hydroponic group (N = 30) or an active hydroponic group (N = 70). Of the 100 students participating, 78 were Caucasian, 18 were Latinx, 2 were Asian, and 2 identified with another ethnicity.
Questionnaire. Students were given a four-question pre- and post-Survey about interest in and understanding of agriculture, technology, and food distribution. An additional question on the post-survey asked about the influence of the hydroponic activity in student interest and understanding.
- Rate your interest in agriculture
- Rate your interest in technology
- How well do you understand how food is grown?
- How well do you understand how food is distributed?
Qualitative questions. A series of open-ended questions were used to gauge the benefits of using PBL as a vehicle for agricultural learning:
- What do you understand about how food is grown?
- What do you understand about the distribution of food?
- Did anything you learn surprise you?
- What, if anything, did you value learning in this project?
- Did you learn any valuable skills? If so, what were they?
- What didn’t you like about the project?
- Did you have any guesses about how the plant would grow? Were they right or wrong?
Digital Journal and Teacher Observation. Students kept a digital journal where they recorded observations and notes about their hydroponics work, and I recorded student participation and conversations for reflection.
Procedures and Data Analysis
The study took place for eight weeks. Before starting the Project, the pre-survey was administered. During the first two weeks, students were introduced to careers and different forms of technology related to agriculture. During that two-week timeframe, students began to germinate seedlings and construct the hydroponic systems (passive or active) that were used throughout the project. Students also began documenting their experience in their digital online journal. The project focused on controlled environment agriculture and using hydroponics to grow plants without the use of soil. Students identified different methods that can be used to grow plants without the use of soil and discussed the pros and cons of each described method.
Over the course of the next five weeks, students observed and documented the growth of their lettuces through their digital journal and recorded growth measurements with photography. During this time the researcher observed student engagement and participation by reading and discussing student journal observations.
At the end of the eight weeks, students harvested their lettuce, completed their documentation, created their own salad dressing, and enjoyed their salad. The post-survey was given and I interviewed students about how their lettuce growing experience affected their understanding of, and interest in, how food is grown and distributed. Responses to questions were coded based on themes that arose in responses. The interviews were recorded digitally.
In all, seven classes and 100 students participated in the study; 30 used a passive and 70 an active hydroponic system to grow Buttercrunch lettuce. Pre- and Post-Survey results were compared by using an average of responses to each question before and after.
Overall, each statement and question received a higher response after the PBL experience. One interesting trend is that students using the active method, which involved constructing a complex system of piping and water flow, indicated an increased interest in both agriculture and technology more than the group that used 2-liter bottles. Responses also demonstrated an increased understanding of food growth and distribution, which was the main question of interest for this study. See more results in the Powerpoint slides.
The student journals were analyzed for evidence of meaningfulness, feelings of competence, and impact, as these are substantiated indicators of interest by educational researchers (Hidi & Baird, 1998; Mitchell, 1993; Weber et al., 2001; Weber et al., 2007) In other words, the more meaning a task has [for the student], the harder they will work to complete the task.
Meaningfulness. One piece of evidence for meaningfulness was the number of students who provided weekly observations and photos. At the start, 61% of students did so, by the end of seven weeks, 98% of students complete a weekly journal entry.
Competence. I noted that at first journal entries focused on superficial observations of plant characteristics such as height and number of leaves. For example, “The plant has little spike looking things. It’s grown 10mm” or “It grew 20 mm. The leaves are green.” By the end of the project comments reflected a more sophisticated understanding of plant growth: “The plant needs a little more water and nutrients, due to its size it will definitely need a resupply to grow, it is very green and is still growing new leaves. Some leaves are wilting but the stems of the plants are becoming stronger.”
Impact. Looking for measures of impact, I found that the student observations again usually focused on descriptions of the plant and its appearance. In line with the claim that a connection with the task leads to more interest (Weber et al., 2007), later observations became more detailed and reflected an increased interest. A Week 2 comment said, “It’s leaning and is not growing on one side. Doesn’t look very healthy.” At Week 5, the student had a much longer response; “It has grown too big I do not think I can eat it all. My plant is starting to touch the neighbor plants because it is so big. Also, it has about 64 giant leaves”.
Interest. Other evidence of student interest and ownership included naming their plants, “[it] has a Seed pod his name is Jim Jam Very healthy,” commenting on the final product, “It is amazing, green, and delicious. My dressing is also good, but not as good as the salad,” and wanting to share what they did with others, “I am taking my lettuce home to eat with my family on burgers.”
Finally, I conducted interviews with a number of volunteer students for a couple of weeks after the study ended (the questions are listed above). Some of the repeating themes that emerged from responses included knowledge about vertical farms, surprises about plant growth, experiencing school in a new way, and sometimes, disappointment. Below are samples of student interview responses to the questions they were asked.
- What do you [now] understand about how food is grown?
- “The main way that I know food is grown is hydroponically. Where water that has protein put into it is piped through all these pipes. It is not using soil so it is more efficient in multiple ways. One way. Easier to transport, they don’t need soil, and soil can help other plants grow better… Some plants also need different ways to grow. Buttercrunch lettuce needs different temperatures and nutrition compared to a cactus. Beets could be completely different to how tomatoes are grown.”
- “I kind of understand more that when food is grown hydroponically it can grow faster and it’s better for the winter time because you don’t need sunlight and doesn’t freeze. It doesn’t require much work, but it can be more expensive.”
- “I understand that some foods they have big fields that they grow in, one time when I lived in LA and I drove out to the middle of California and there was huge fields that were growing corn and other plants. I also understand that there is a lot of foods that are grown hydroponically. You can get more food per square foot.”
- What do you [now] understand about the distribution of food?
- “There are not many farmers, and we need a lot of plants now in order to keep the population has to be grown in doors and other places. And you should try and eat local. If you live in a big city like New York, you’re going to have to have food that is not that local, you may need to have it shipped on planes and trucks.”
- “I didn’t realize that not all food, I knew food that food was grown other places, I didn’t realize that food needed to travel so far to get places.”
- “A lot of places now have hydroponics towers, in like old buildings like NY. Instead of trying to ship it around the planet.
- Did anything you learned surprise you?
- “How fast the plants grew. They grew really fast. Was expecting it would take 3 months.”
- “I was surprised how big the lettuce got, it turned out from a tiny seed, to a giant canopy of leaves.”
- “The ones in certain areas of the school how big they got. Some got a good balance of sunlight and night time, other parts of the school, some got really hot.”
- What, if anything, did you value learning in this project?
- “I used to think that growing plants, you would have to dig a hole, put the plants in, cover them back up, and then you would have to water it continually. After learning about hydroponics, I learned about how much easier it is to grow food without having to use soil.”
- “I valued being able to take care of something in school, and watching it grow”.
- “I thought it was really cool about how much food you can grow hydroponically with how you can stack it, it doesn’t have to be in the earth, and it’s a lot easier.”
- Did you learn any valuable skills? If so, what were they?
- “Even though that your plant could be dying or not look good, doesn’t need it is not going to taste good. It could still have a lot of nutrition.”
- “I can now grow food on my own with nutrients.”
- “It was fun, unlike normal school, you have something to look forward to, you don’t just have boring worksheets all day. A two-liter bottle is something you can find every day that you can turn into food.”
- What didn’t you like about this project?
- “I Didn’t like how it was just happening sometimes and we really weren’t doing it.”
- “The tower I didn’t like how you couldn’t see the roots; it was cool to see all the roots in the 2-liter bottle.”
- “One part of my plant was a little singed from the sun and heat.”
- Did you have any guesses about how the plant would grow? Were they right or wrong?
- “I thought that the plant would be short, maybe only 5 inches, and they turned out to be huge.”
- “I thought the plant would grow slower, and be a lot smaller, thought it would be a bush. It got a lot bigger!.”
- “I was wrong, I thought it would not grow as big as it did. Because the seed was so small and the rockwool was so small, I had no idea it would be as big as it was.”
Students were astounded at the variety of places food was being grown throughout our world. Students responses seemed to indicate that they are interested to know that hydroponics can be used almost anywhere with the right amount of ingenuity and determination—even in the classroom. Students were also surprised at the speed of plant growth along with the size of their plant. This showed that many students had no idea that hydroponics could be a form of food production.
PBL allows students to explore school in a new way. In a traditional school setting, many students see school as boring and unengaging. With the use of PBL, many students mentioned this project was not like “normal school” and was something that they looked forward to day after day.
There were also negative comments from some students disappointed about their plant’s growth. It would be ideal to have every plant flourish, but in this project, some plants were devastated by heat, too much touching by students, and other unknown factors. However, the nature of the disappointment illustrates the profound importance and emotional engagement this project held for students. While reading through the samples of student responses to the interview questions there were clear indicators that students’ competence increased and the PBL format contributed to this.
Overall, this study shows how PBL can energize, challenge, and engage students with thoughtful, real-world problems. The hydroponics activity involved students from the beginning to the end; from the planting to the harvest. This experience shows that growing lettuce can be an interactive and engaging classroom project, as supported by both quantitative and qualitative data. Every student deserves an education that encourages creativity, collaboration, and reflection, and this research has found that the PBL activity of growing Buttercrunch lettuce has provided a piece of the education each child deserves.
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To cite this work, please use the following reference:
Gannon, B. (2021). Increasing student learning and interest in hydroponics through project-based learning. Retrieved from https://www.socialpublishersfoundation.org/knowledge_base/increasing-student-learning-and-interest-in-hydroponics-through-project-based-learning/