Soil Free Farming: The Future of Urban Ecology at BC

Boston College professor Mike Barnett has found the golden method to entice students in the Boston area to think about STEM careers. Barnett’s experience with urban ecology has led him to start a project in Boston schools that allows for students to build and sell food with the use of hydroponics.

Hydroponics is the process of growing food with nutrient-rich water instead of soil and is the basis for a project that high school students have been working on at BC since 2012. About 60 high school students come to learn at BC's greenhouse every year. The program targets teens with average grades, Barnett says, and many of the students come from immigrant families.

Barnett, as a professor of science education and technology at BC, seeks to engage students in STEM focused careers, as he feels that these careers come with high levels of opportunity. There are a great number of options, as well as the potential for funding and advancement with STEM careers, Barnett says.

Students run a stand at local farmers markets almost every Saturday, and have to step up to answer questions from customers who are skeptical about hydroponics, Barnett says. While the money that the students make goes back into the program in some way, the students are the ones that get to decide how the money is spent. As a result of this, they learn how to run a business because they come to understand that they have to save up and invest in materials.

Photo courtesy of Flickr

Photo courtesy of Flickr

However, the underlying reason for the students’ undeniable interest in hydroponics, Barnett says, is that “kids just like to grow stuff.” The students enjoy working with their hands, which allows them to positively associate science and technology with potential careers that they can strive toward.

In addition to the career focus that this program provides for the students, there is an added bonus that benefits the students’ education. This centers around the idea that hydroponics has a lot of potential in urban ecology as it has a smaller ecological footprint than other current agricultural practices. As a result of growing without the need for soil, hydroponics allows for a greater and faster growth of foods because the nutrients that go into the plants are used entirely for growth, as opposed to being stored in the plant roots in the soil.

“Hydroponic production is extremely productive on a per acre basis," says Tara Pisani Gareau, professor of agroecology at Boston College. "It achieves high yield with less water, fewer fertilizers, no herbicides, [although] you do need insecticides and fungicides, no erosion and theoretically no new habitat conversion. But, there are large energy inputs to hydroponics in the form of electricity for grow lamps, and heating, generally in form of natural gas or propane, during the winter.”

Barnett has partner schools in this urban ecology program in urban centers such as Lennox and South Los Angeles, California. He seeks to expand this project to 200 schools and potentially scale this project to China.

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