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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Tech has revolutionized industry. What about schools?

[Schools around the country are making learning more relevant and authentic by adding real-world challenges. In this SmartBrief article students use aquaponics as strategy to make the connection between science, entrepreneurial thinking, and agriculture. In the Pittsburgh region the Fort Cherry School District has done a very similar project with similar success. In the near future Fort Cherry and South Fayette hope to partner with the Eden Hall campus of Chatham University on a project that mirrors some of the dimensions shared in the article.]

Brianna Crowley  July 11, 2016

Aquaponics at Fort Cherry Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Smartboards. Smartphones. Smart classrooms. Edtech entrepreneur Ian Kanski asks, “Smart to what end? What are we using the technology for?”

His question resonates with many educators who have been inundated with new devices, apps, extensions and programs over the last decade. Although exciting and potentially transformational, the relationship between edtech and improved learning isn’t simple. Even if every classroom is connected to high-speed internet and every student carries the power of computing in their back pocket, the structure of school often does not reflect the interconnected, interdisciplinary world beyond its walls.

What if we reimagine technology as a bridge to rebuild school-to-career pathways?

Too many graduating students enter the workforce unprepared, and too many companies depend on importing technical skills from other countries. Kanski and his team, working alongside the Wheelhouse organization, have pioneered a “school to table” model where skills aren’t learned in a vacuum but instead are applied to indoor agriculture installations. In this program, aquaponic systems for raising fish and plants are managed and nurtured by teams of students who also market their products to local buyers. All proceeds return to the school.

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Kids design toys and watch them being made with PieceMaker Technologies

[Carnegie Mellon University has become a haven for spin-off companies. I work with two – Birdbrain Technologies and Zulama. In this NEXTPittsburgh article you’ll discover a new, consumer direction for 3D printing – personalized toys and paraphernalia for youngsters (in age or at heart). ]


Think of Arden Rosenblatt and Alejandro Sklar as the next best thing to elves at Santa’s workshop.

Through their innovation, youngsters can design a toy on a computer then watch it being manufactured on the spot.

Pittsburgh-based PieceMaker Technologies, the company that Carnegie Mellon University classmates Rosenblatt and Sklar founded in 2013, is delivering the capabilities of 3D printing to an appreciative customer base, with a couple of industry giants on board.

On the heels of a successful local venture with Toys “R” Us Inc., PieceMaker last month announced a partnership with Nickelodeon for on-the-spot manufacture of the likenesses of such favorites as Dora the Explorer, SpongeBob SquarePants and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

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