Grant helps MFL MarMac students learn more about hydroponics

Error message

  • Warning: array_merge(): Argument #1 is not an array in _simpleads_render_ajax_template() (line 133 of /home/pdccourier/public_html/sites/all/modules/simpleads/includes/simpleads.helper.inc).
  • Notice: Trying to get property of non-object in _simpleads_adgroup_settings() (line 343 of /home/pdccourier/public_html/sites/all/modules/simpleads/includes/simpleads.helper.inc).
  • Warning: array_merge(): Argument #1 is not an array in _simpleads_render_ajax_template() (line 157 of /home/pdccourier/public_html/sites/all/modules/simpleads/includes/simpleads.helper.inc).

The MFL MarMac High School greenhouse received a facelift this spring, including updated walls and new sprinkler and heating and cooling systems. The work was done in preparation for the installation of a hydroponic system (seen on the left), which was purchased thanks to a McElroy Grant. The system is currently growing lettuce without the use of soil. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

Three kinds of lettuce are now growing in the hydroponic system. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

Students in Sarah Wille’s horticulture class have been involved in each step of lettuce production with the hydroponic system. That starts with planting the lettuce seeds in rockwool (shown here), where they sprout and begin to grow roots, then determining when to transplant them into the hydroponic system. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

This winter, with funding from the McElroy Grant, all three third grade classrooms were able to purchase grow lights for their small hydroponic operations, which demonstrate the life cycle of a bean. (Submitted photo)

With help from the grow lights, the hydroponically-grown bean plants finally bore fruit. (Submitted photo)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

MFL MarMac students in both the high school and elementary school are learning more about hydroponics thanks to a $2,000 McElroy Grant.

Third grade teacher Jennifer Wilwert and high school agriculture teacher Sarah Wille applied for the grant together, for a project entitled “Introducing Hydroponics to Future Farmers,” after learning they both had an interest in sharing the unique plant-growing method with their students.

“Hydroponics is growing plants without the use of soil,” Wille explained.

Instead, aerated water circulates around the plants’ roots and liquid fertilizer provides the nutrients they would otherwise receive from soil. 

Third graders have been learning about hydroponics on a small scale for the past three years, through a science kit that demonstrates the life cycle of a bean.

“We start with sprouting the beans, then transfer them to the hydroponics,” where they continue growing in plastic containers, said Wilwert. “Then we have to wait and wait and wait.”

“Last year, I purchased a plant light and I actually got a blossom, but we never got to the fruit part,” she added.

This winter, with funding from the grant, all three third grade classrooms were able to purchase grow lights that allowed students to view the bean’s entire life cycle.

“We finally had blossoms, and we did get the fruit this year,” Wilwert said.

She enjoys watching the students’ reactions to this alternative form of agriculture.

“A lot of kids didn’t realize you could grow things in water and not have soil,” Wilwert noted.

At the high school, students are learning much the same way—but on a larger, more sophisticated scale. Earlier this year, a hydroponic system was installed in the greenhouse, using funds from the grant. Tristan Martins, who has his own hydroponics business, helped set up the system, which stretches in five narrow rows along one greenhouse wall.

“We don’t show it here,” Wille said, “but with hydroponics, you can stack them. With soil, all I would have is the square footage of what I could plant, but with hydroponics, that footage is cubic now. I can grow three-dimensional, up and out and everywhere.”

Right now, MFL MarMac is growing three kinds of lettuce: iceberg, romaine and buttercrunch. The plant is a good one to test the hydroponic waters.

“Lettuce is very resilient,” Wille remarked. “If the temperature isn’t quite right, you can kind of figure it out before your whole crop is dead.”

Plant maintenance is one of the advantages of hydroponics.

“You don’t have to water them,” Wille said, gesturing to the leafy greens emerging from holes that dot the length of each row. “The roots are submerged right in the water, so I can leave this and come back in a week and it’ll be just fine.”

Students in Wille’s horticulture class have been involved in each step of production. That starts with planting the lettuce seeds in rockwool, where they sprout and begin to grow roots, then determining when to transplant them into the hydroponic system. Once the lettuce is established, students check the water level, as well as the water’s pH and nutrient levels, and clean the filter for the pump, if needed. They decide which seeds to order and keep records so they know what price to charge for the lettuce when it comes time to sell it.

“But I’m not worried about making a profit as much as I’m concerned about students learning and just enhancing activity for my classes,” Wille said. “I kind of guide them along, but, ultimately, it’s their project.”

Wille relishes teaching her students about topics like nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium in the classroom, then watching them put that knowledge to use in the greenhouse. 

“They learn by doing,” she shared. “And a lot of students who wouldn’t normally take an ag class are starting to think about horticulture. It’s just a great activity for the students. It’s really fun to see them take ownership.”

In the next couple weeks, Wilwert hopes her students will experience that too, when they visit the high school’s hydroponic system. 

“[Wille] had great ideas of what to do with the agriculture, and we hope to supplement that by taking a walk over there to see what she came up with,” said Wilwert.

If time allows, the elementary classes may even take a trip to Pauly’s Red Greenhouse, near Farmersburg, which has an extensive hydroponics system.

Wille said the system at the high school wouldn’t have worked as well as it has without some much-needed updates to the greenhouse.

“The greenhouse before this was just looking worn and it wasn’t a bright and sunny space,” she said. “So, I thought to myself, ‘before putting this beautiful hydroponic system up, let’s give the greenhouse some tender love and care.’”

That facelift included re-doing the walls and sprinkler system and updating the heating and cooling system, with assistance from Steve Haberichter and Pat’s Electric. Staff member Brandi Crozier helped organize the space, taking down shelves and removing items that were no longer being used.

The changes, Wille noted, have upped her confidence.

“With our new cooling and temperature regulating system, I know if I buy some plants and plant them, they’re not going to die over a warm weekend,” she said. “I’m hoping to advance what we do in here as the years go on.”

In addition to working with the hydroponic system, students have been in the greenhouse for other projects too. They planted some flowers with the elementary students and, for the second year, stratified seeds for the Driftless Area Wetlands Centre, in Marquette, which will later be planted.

“It’s just a great space,” Wille shared. “It feels nice. You can feel the sun on your skin and it’s very bright. I enjoy being in here and the students do too.”

Rate this article: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)