What High Tech Urban Farms Can Teach Kids About Tinkering

[In this Mindshift article originally written for the Hechinger Report we learn about two new developments – Freight Farms and and OpenAg. Both projects attempt to give learners new ways to discover how to grow and market foods, but with a “maker” twist. I’m currently working with two school districts – Quaker Valley and Montour- on a Design Challenge with the Energy Innovation Center to develop a sustainable food distribution system where schools in the region would supply some of the necessary food ingredients for a local Culinary Arts program at the Parkway West Career and Technology Center nearby. The student consulting teams are looking at all types of food growth including the ideas in this article. In December the students will share their proposed solution. It’s no longer enough to learn how to grow food; it’s now critical to see how healthy and nutritious food can meet the sustainable needs for a community.]

BOSTON – On the cramped urban campus of Boston Latin School, high-school students grow an acre’s worth of vegetables in an old shipping container that’s been transformed into a computer-controlled hydroponic farm. Using a wall-mounted keyboard or a mobile app, the student farmers can monitor their crops, tweak the climate, make it rain and schedule every ultraviolet sunrise.

In a few decades, nine billion people will crowd our planet, and the challenge of sustainably feeding everybody has sparked a boom in high-tech farming that is now budding up in schools. These farms offer hands-on learning about everything from plant physiology to computer science, along with insights into the complexities and controversies of sustainability. The school farms are also incubators, joining a larger online community of farm hackers.

“We are constantly experimenting,” said Catherine Arnold, a Boston Latin history teacher who oversees the environmental club that runs the farm as an extracurricular activity. It was built by a Boston startup called Freight Farms, which “upcycles” discarded shipping containers into “Leafy Green Machines” for small-scale growers and restaurants, as well as a dozen schools and colleges.

The latest version of a freight farm costs $82,000. Boston Latin has a cheaper, earlier version, paid for with a green-schools grant. The students have been giving their food away but plan to sell produce to parents and neighbors this year, to cover the annual cost of seeds, nutrients and other supplies.

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