TURNER – Students at Tripp Middle School learned this year that plants don’t need to grow soil.
Just water, nutrients and sunlight.
“I was kind of surprised because I always overwater my plants,” eighth grader Sabra Lorrimer said. “So it was like, can they just live in water without dirt? I thought there were certain nutrients it could only get from dirt. “
Recently, Kara Getty, a gifted and talented teacher for Turner-based Maine School Administrative District 52, brought her students to Tripp Middle School at Canopy Farm in Brunswick to see how plants could grow without water.
Now, Lorrimer and his classmates are designing and constructing two hydroponic systems as part of a comprehensive 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 into a storage bin, aiming to piece the bin, 5-gallon bucket, tubes and pumps 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 encountered during the project. Shipping problems have delayed necessary equipment and all of their lettuce seedlings died over April break, leaving only a few plants left.
For the gravity-fed drip hydroponics system, students will arrange three PVC 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 circulate water containing fish waste for plant nutrition.
This is the first collaborative hands-on project Getty’s students have been able to do since the pandemic began in the spring of 2020. In the last couple of years, students have each been required to avoid their own kit-transmitting COVID- 19.
Getty felt it was apt for her students to focus on agriculture because of 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 into huge farm fields – you use the area that is needed for the plants, and then you use leftover specials like solar panels and stuff like that,” Lorrimer 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 learn about Fitbit-like devices used to monitor the cows’ health and activity.
The students said they would be unsure when the system would be up and running, but with several eighth graders preparing to move to Leavitt Area High School in Turner next year, they would be determined to finish construction before the end of the year.
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