TURNER — Students at Tripp Middle School learned this year that plants don’t need soil to grow.
Just water, nutrients and sunlight.
“I was kind of surprised because I always overwater my plants,” eighth grader Sabra Lorimer said. “So it was like, they can just live in water without dirt? I thought there’s certain nutrients it could only get from dirt.”
Recently, Kara Getty, gifted and talented teacher for Turner-based Maine School Administrative District 52, brought her students at Tripp Middle School to visit Canopy Farm in Brunswick to see how plants can grow without water.
Now, Lorimer and her classmates are designing and constructing two hydroponic systems as part of an extensive study on technology in agriculture.
Hydroponics is a method of growing plants in nutrient-rich water often circulated by a pump.
In the ebb and flow system designed by students, plant roots will be doused with water and nutrients about three times per day. A pump will fill the plant bin up to a certain point, then drain each cycle.
On Tuesday, seventh grader Elliot Moize drilled two holes in a storage bin, aiming to piece the bin, 5-gallon bucket, tubes and pump together to create the system. But he realized the tubes were too small to fit the pump, and was unable to assemble it.
It’s not the only challenge they’ve faced during the project. Shipping problems have delayed necessary equipment and all of their lettuce seedlings died over April break, leaving just a few plants left.
For the gravity-fed drip hydroponics system, students will arrange three PVC laden pipes with pebbles and plants in a “Z” formation. This model will constantly circulate nutrient-rich water through the pipes.
Eighth grader Charlotte Trundy drew the plans for the gravity-fed drip system, carefully considering both the angle of the pipes and the scale of the system.
“One of the troubles is just thinking of all the errors that could happen because I never thought of the pitches,” Trundy said. “I never thought of it. Our tech-ed teacher, Mr. (Doug) Bishop, he helped us out with that because if you have too much of a high pitch, the water’s just going to come through and some plants aren’t going to get the water they need.”
Students are also waiting for a fish tank to arrive, hoping to experiment with aquaponics as well. While hydroponics uses bottled nutrients, aquaponic systems circulates water containing fish waste for plant nutrition.
This is the first collaborative hands-on project Getty’s students have been able to do since before the start of the pandemic in the spring of 2020. In the last couple of years, each student was required to have their own kit to avoid transmitting COVID- 19.
Getty felt it was apt for her students to focus on agriculture due to the area’s extensive farming ties. Plus, “it was spring,” she shared with a laugh.
Hydroponics, the students said, can be used to grow food more efficiently.
“I was thinking, since it takes up less space, you can turn the massive farm fields into — you use the area that is needed for the plants, and then you use the leftover special for like solar panels and stuff like that,” Lorimer said.
Hydroponics systems use as much as 10 times less water than conventional growing strategies, according to an article written by the National Park Service.
“It’s also self-sustaining,” added Moize, meaning once the system is running, it needs very few inputs for plants to continue growing.
Beyond the hydroponics project, Getty also brought her students to Brigeen Farms in Turner, a dairy farm owned by school board Chairwoman Elizabeth Bullard. Students learned about Fitbit-like devices used to monitor the cows’ health and activity.
The students said they’re unsure when the system will be up and running, but with several eight graders preparing to move on to Leavitt Area High School in Turner next year, they’re determined to finish construction before the end of the year.
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