When one thinks of growing food and plants, the traditional garden consisting of soil, water and sunlight is usually the visual image that inserts itself into the human consciousness.
In light of a partnership between PLANTS LLC and Wheeling Jesuit University's Appalachian Institute, a focus on using hydroponic education to answer the food needs of the Appalachian region replaces the traditional garden image.
The Innovation Transfer Consortium, or ITC, a project of TechConnect WV, has awarded a $5,000 seed grant to PLANTS LLC and WJU's Appalachian Institute to develop and commercialize educational programming about simple, inexpensive hydroponic vegetable production systems to address the Appalachian area's need for higher nutritional food accessible to low income populations.
What are hydroponic growing systems?
Laurie Ruberg, who created Wheeling-based PLANTS LLC, said hydroponic growing systems are "nutrient-based water systems for growing plants" and provide the ability to recycle the nutrient-filled water without using soil.
Jack Carpenter, director of TechConnect WV, said hydroponic growing systems have the ability to thrive in any environment, specifically "where growing in soil is not advantageous."
Year-round gardens also would be a possibility through the hydroponic growing system, as well as an opportunity to expand on the community garden concept.
"Year-round winter gardening would open up even more opportunities for family and community gardens to provide supplemental nutrition conveniently and inexpensively," Ruberg said.
Other advantages include the elimination of soil borne pests and diseases, higher crop yields in smaller spaces and the elimination of weeds.
Water shortage would be a non-issue due to the fact that the nutrient-filled water can be recycled in the controlled environment.
Extending systems to the classroom
Through the collaboration of Mary Railing, WJU faculty member and research and advocacy associate with the university's Appalachian Institute and PLANTS LLC, PLANTS will be working to market and disseminate hydroponic plant kits for schools and community groups.
"The Appalachian Institute is excited to carry out its mission of promoting research, service and advocacy for and with the people of Appalachia by partnering on this inventive educational opportunity," Railing said in a statement.
According to Ruberg, three different plant environments will be tested, with Railing and a team of student researchers majoring in chemistry, nursing, education and environment and sustainability all working on the project.
The vegetable of focus for the research project is lettuce, Ruberg said.
"From seed to harvest, it's a quick go-around," she said. "This project will result in an educational product that provides teachers with professional development support to help them integrate plant growth, development and ecosystem activities into their inter-disciplinary curriculum."
Classroom lessons will include germinating seeds, growing and harvesting plants and allowing students to design and build their own inexpensive hydroponic plant growth systems.
Not only will the research project equip teachers with the curriculum necessary to implement the growing systems into the classroom, but the students also will equip a new learning tool, Carpenter said.
"It's the type of process that becomes a learning tool for children of all ages," he said.
Classrooms and beyond
According to Ruberg, the assembling of the curriculum has already begun.
The goal is to finish the project by the end of the semester and have a preliminary curriculum by June 1.
Ruberg said she plans to have a preview of the curriculum by May in order to give to teachers the opportunity to look over the curriculum during the summer.
Teachers are busy, Ruberg said, so giving them ample time to look over it is important.
"Teachers like to look over it during the summer," she said.
By fall 2014, Ruberg said she would like to have a completed curriculum ready for teachers to begin using in the classroom.
For Carpenter, he sees the potential for hydroponic growing systems curricula to make its way not only into classrooms in the Mountain State, but in "classrooms across the country and the world."