- Institute Learning
Two students are walking through Hollenbach Middle School, surrounded by walls of lockers, and are suddenly drawn in by a pink light coming from a classroom.
“What is this?” they say hesitantly, but they come further into the room.
“Can we try this?” and help themselves to bibb lettuce and a sprig of mint.
“This is so cool! What is this?”
This is an indoor aeroponic farm.
During the 2021-22 school year, an indoor farming project was launched, supported by students from all three institutes. This is the first ever project that features collaboration among more than two institutes, and we expect to soon see Design Institute students joining in to work on the physical space.
Eric Frey, Director of the Entrepreneur Institute, leads this endeavor.
“As the facilitator, I am supporting them in experimenting with growing - both food and a business - and learning what will work,” says Frey. “When students get into this room, they are really excited to be here. The ‘coolness’ factor of this project really sets it apart.”
The indoor farm has 13 growing units from Tower Garden. Using aeroponics, Tower Gardens grow plants with only water and nutrients. Instead of soil, plants grow in a medium called rockwool, which provides plant roots with oxygen and consistent moisture, encouraging rapid, healthy growth.
A reservoir holds the nutrients solution and a low-wattage, submersible pump in the reservoir pushes the nutrient solution to the top of the garden through a small central pipe. The nutrient solution then drips down the inside of the garden, evenly cascading over the exposed plant roots. A timer ensures that this process repeats continuously—usually in 15-minute increments—to deliver the ideal amount of oxygen, water, and nutrients to plants.
The original goal of the project was to start a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) garden. A CSA is a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation where the growers and consumers provide mutual support and share the risks and benefits of food production. Typically, CSA customers pay in advance and then receive a share of the harvest each week.
After almost a year of preparing the towers, learning about aeroponics, and eventually growing vegetables and herbs, the project goal has shifted. The students now hope to rent space on each tower to an individual or family who can choose what they would like planted - like a concierge growing service – or set up a tower in a local business who can use the plants in their restaurant or café, harvesting what they need throughout the year. This type of shift, learning by doing, is at the heart of the culture of the Institutes. Students are encouraged to pursue their ideas, iterate through the process, and then if a change is needed – make it. Experience truly is the best teacher.
“The Institutes go about things differently here,” says Frey. “It is an awesome and unique experience that our students have. Letting them pave their own path is priceless.”
Students can participate in the indoor farm project either during weekly club meetings, or as part of their Institute learning. Medical Institute students are working on nutrient analysis and health benefits of the plants grown. Entrepreneurship students are coordinating the branding, marketing, and financial components. Artificial Intelligence students are tackling the continual automation of the farm, including nutrient, pH, and water levels.
Manuel Garcia ’23, of Elche, Spain, has taken on the role of Chief Financial Officer for the indoor farm project. Garcia manages the project’s expenses and hopefully one day soon, its revenue. He tracks and calculates the amount spent on water and electricity, and on marketing the project.
“I have always been interested in business and knowing how each expense adds up to affect the revenue,” says Garcia. “Now I understand much more about why companies make the choices they do. This is very hands-on. It’s a great opportunity. There was nothing student-run like this at my last school. We are supported but in control. Mr. Frey and the faculty have trust and confidence in our work.”
As a junior in the Entrepreneur Institute, Garcia joined the endeavor initially as a club, but as he became more involved, he realized it would be an excellent capstone project. The goal for those involved is to learn all they can this year, find customers over the summer, and then successfully grow vegetables for customers throughout the 2022-23 school year.
When not working on the finances, Garcia also helps balance the towers’ pH levels and helps plant along with the other students.
“I’ve become really passionate about it,” says Garcia. “It is an eco-friendly and sustainable way to plant, with no pesticides, no insects, and not much user intervention; it is reducing our carbon footprint. Everything is natural. I taste a huge difference between these vegetables and the ones available at the store. It is a much more flavorful product.”
The indoor farm will be a legacy project, that can be passed on from class to class.
“This is definitely something I want to see go on for years to come,” says Frey. “With students being involved so heavily, an underclass student can assume a role when someone graduates. The next wave of students can carry it on. It’s an infinite project.”
This is very hands-on. It’s a great opportunity. There was nothing student-run like this at my last school.
We are supported but in control. Mr. Frey and the faculty have trust and confidence in our work. - Manuel Garcia '23