Wall of lettuce is growing in school cafeteria Hamilton middle school cuts ribbon on new hydroponics system

KEN YUSZKUS/Staff photo. Miles River Middle School life skills teacher Danielle Petrucci examines one of the plants near the hydroponic grow wall where two types of lettuce, spartnut and dragon, are flourishing. 06/09/16

HAMILTON — Thursday was busy at Hamilton's Miles River Middle School. It was the first-ever eighth-grade science fair, and afterward, there was a ribbon cutting for the school's new vertical hydroponic grow wall. 

The wall is a 14-by-10, three-tiered plant system screwed into the wall of the cafeteria. It employs the hydroponics method of growing plants — using nutrient solutions in water, rather than soil. 

Right now, it's growing lettuce. Down the road, the school hopes to harvest basil, oregano and maybe even strawberries. The full yield will be used by cafeteria staff in their once-a-week salad bar, but some will be donated to the Acord Food Pantry in Hamilton.

The grow wall was custom-designed and built by Rootdown Hydroponics Indoor Garden Center of Medford, with funding from the Hamilton-Wenham Education Fund. It's an initiative of the Miles River Middle School Environmental Team — a group of health, science, math, technology and food services teachers and staff, led by Danielle Petrucci.

"Schoolwide, everyone has access to the wall. It can be used in math for understanding how cost-effective it is to grow your own produce or buy local versus buying, say, lettuce from California," Petrucci said. "We didn't want to limit it to a small group of kids in certain classrooms. It's a part of the curriculum for all to use."

The system works by pumping water from a reservoir at the bottom of the wall to the top tier. As that tray is filled, gaskets slow down the flow so the water gradually trickles down into the second tier, and then into the bottom tray, ultimately going back into the reservoir. Because the grow wall recycles water, it uses 90 percent less water than outdoor farms or gardens. 

The only care required is changing the water every two weeks. The wall is kept in room temperature conditions between about 65 and 75 degrees. 

The wall was introduced to the school just a few weeks ago and was planted with lettuce.

"This is a big test for this grow wall because the cafeteria is large, so there's fluctuations in temperature. But we are so happy because it's thriving. The lettuce is very large and growing very fast," said Petrucci.

The Environmental Team became interested in grow walls after some team members participated in a professional development program last summer at Boston College. Attendees learned about hydroponic systems and their benefits in the classroom. The school got two small grow walls for free from the development program, which are now used in classrooms. 

Now, with the new, bigger wall, the school can grow about 300 lettuce heads at a time, compared with the 75 yielded by the two smaller systems.

Petrucci said students love the wall.

"They're amazed by it. Every day they say how cool it is and can't believe how fast it's growing," she said. 

One student was so inspired that he researched and designed his own aquaponics system — a system that uses water and waste involved in a fish habitat to grow plants in another section of the system.

"Having this here and having the kids say, 'Wow, what's that? I've never heard of it,' and researching it on their own, it's pretty amazing," said Petrucci. "We want to teach students about sustainability and health science in an innovative, unique way. This encourages environmental education in a project-based, hands-on learning method."

That mission echoes the current movement in education for students to do project-based learning instead of a more worksheet-based strategy. Jullie Snyder, a science teacher at Miles River, said it's this movement that inspired her to start the first science fair linked to the introduction of the grow wall.

Her eighth-grade students were assigned a year-long project in which they had to pose a question or try to solve a problem using the scientific method. For example, one student decided to explore whether you can actually slip on a banana peel on certain surfaces, just like in the cartoons.

Snyder said the project strategy is powerful for students.

"It means they're curious and want to keep learning more, which is really the point of this — to draw them into science and let them know you don't have to be the smartest kid or go to a special school to use science to learn about your world," she said. "There's a buzz and an energy right now in classes. The kids are really proud of their work and are excited to show it to the community."

Snyder said the eighth-grade science fair will be an annual event. Likewise, the grow wall isn't the end of the Environmental Team's work. 

"We'll hopefully do other big things soon," said Petrucci. "This is just the beginning for us."

Staff writer Amanda Ostuni can be reached at 978-338-2660 or aostuni@salemnews.com.

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