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L’Anse Creuse North students grow garden without soil

Nicole Tuttle – voicenews.com

June 29, 2010

L’Anse Creuse High School North students’ latest biology project and teacher Gary Abud’s plan to integrate problem-based learning into the classroom grew out of the same garden – one that uses no soil.

L’Anse Creuse High School North biology students presented their findings from a problem based learning initiative to grow a garden without soil on June 4 in the James Nazarko Media Center at the school.

A total of 48 students in two biology classes participated in the project. The majority of the students were ninth-graders.

Students researched options and developed a strategy, attempting to solve their problem by using hydroponics.

“They grew tomato and hot pepper plants in our classroom starting in late January,” said Abud. “This is an impressive group of students taking on a project and presentation that is typical of a graduate college student.”

Students were asked to give oral presentations about their project, using technology such as Prezi and Animoto as visual aids, according to Abud.

Abud said that the plan for the garden first originated with a Christmas present he was given.

“I received an AeroGarden indoor growing system as a Christmas present last year, and was intrigued by how it worked,” Abud said. “It seemed like a great idea for use in a biology classroom, but I was unsure how to integrate it with the class curriculum.”

Abud said the solution presented itself in January, when he attended a problem-based learning workshop. Abud said he was inspired to use the AeroGarden as a solution to the learning problem of how to grow a garden without soil.

Problem-based learning is a teaching method which allows students to discover and construct their own learning while being guided by the teacher, instead of the traditional method of teaching in which a teacher lectures and students memorize information.

“Students, instead of being told the answer to a problem, are given the problem and guided to research and solve the problem,” Abud said. “This gives the students full control over their learning, and the ability to associate everything they learn with their experience solving the problem. Typically problems presented are authentic to the real world, and connect to many academic areas. They require students to critically think, perform as they would in the real world, and collaborate with others to generate a solution. If done properly, problem-based learning can result in tremendous gains in student learning and give the students unique experiences that simulate the working world.”

To apply this to the soilless garden project, Abud asked his students to find out how to grow a garden without soil, develop an experiment to test their hypothesis and analyze the results to draw conclusions.

“Through the process, they learn the biology concepts firsthand,” Abud said. “The gardening problem happens to connect well to many concepts taught in biology.”

Students conducted their research during the last two weeks of January using a combination of library resources and the Internet, and were asked to keep a collective research journal of their findings using Google Documents.

“The students in the class all collaborated on a strategy based on the recurring theme of hydroponics as a solution to the problem, which many students found in their research,” Abud said. “They analyzed and presented what everyone learned from their research and decided to use a hydroponic growing system to solve the problem.”

The hydroponic system, according to Abud, served the same function as soil because the plants would be exposed to nutrients in the water in which they would grow. The delivery of nutrients is the essential function of soil, according to Abud. Students hypothesized that if they could get the plants nutrients, water and light they could dispense with soil, according to Abud.

“The whole system is called hydroponics,” said Amber Reeves, a 15-year-old freshman who participated in the experiment. “We also studied different methods…but in the end this turned out to be the most cost efficient.”

Although the plants did not flourish as students had hoped, the project still served to teach many important scientific lessons, according to Abud.

“The project was quite successful in several ways,” Abud said. “The plants grew to full maturity, developed flowers, were pollinated, and produced fruit…However, before the classes left on spring break, the plants were not given extra water and nutrients to make up for the 10 days they would be unattended. When the students returned from break, the plants had all wilted and nearly died.”

After this drought, students tried to revive their plants with pruning, but pruned too much, according to Abud. He said that only one plant of the original six was pruned correctly, and it survived.

“It was successful in the long run,” said Haylee Strauss, a 15-year-old freshman who participated in the project. “But during the spring break when it didn’t have enough water it ended up dying, but if we would have stayed on it every day…it would have done well.”

The death of the majority of the plants taught students the need for photosynthesis and what can happen if a team is not totally collaborative.

“They learned all the elements necessary to grow a garden, and furthermore how to grow one without soil,” Abud said. “They saw firsthand how critically important it is for plants to have water above all else. No water means no delivery of nutrients and cells in the plant cannot stay ‘inflated’ and remain upright.”

Reeves also said she counted the experiment a success.

“As a learning experience I think it was very successful, because we all learned how to use the system and how much more cost efficient it is and different ways to grow plants that are a lot cheaper,” Reeves said.

Students also learned the value of their data despite the death of many plants.

“Finally, they learned that in experimentation it is important not to set out to get the outcome you want, but rather you must set out to explain your results and draw conclusions from what actually happens,” Abud said.

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