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Food computer is catalyst for growth at innovation lab

By Jerry Fingal
June 17, 2019
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At Andover High School in Andover, Massachusetts, students’ work on a computer-controlled hydroponic growing system earned a gold medal at an international tech competition in China.

It was a high honor, beyond anyone’s expectations when work on the food computer be­gan. But the students’ accomplishment had a big­ger effect closer to home: It kick-started the school’s innovation lab and led participation to jump from just a handful of students a few years ago to more than 90 this year. It also was validation for the
innovation lab’s newly instituted curriculum based in design thinking.

“It’s really evolved in just a few years and we’re just growing with it,” says Shelagh St. Laurent, the school’s digital learning coach. “We’re really excited about it and the kids are, too.”

The food computer project, which the students dubbed the Smart Garden, was an outgrowth of the school’s student-staffed technology help desk. As the help desk evolved, the school started to think about “passion projects” that the nine students on the help desk could work on together. The first was an augmented reality sandbox that uses an Xbox Kinect camera to project contour lines on “land forms” created in sand.

The sandbox creation led to an invitation to nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It was at MIT that students were introduced to a food computer, which is part of the university’s Open Agriculture Initiative that aims to create innova­tive and sustainable ways to produce food through open-source technology.

The Andover students found fresh inspiration in the food computer, which is a self-contained grow­ing environment controlled by software that can be used anywhere. Anything that can be grown outside can be grown inside a food computer as long as the plants don’t need more space than provided by the device’s container. Berries and greens do especially well.

Using directions provided by MIT that are publicly available and a couple hundred dollars’ worth of supplies, the students embarked on build­ing their own with mint as the crop.

“I feel like the food computer really gave us the chance to understand that kids are interested in this type of learning and we’re able to support them now in ways that we just couldn’t before,” St. Laurent says.

Why does it work?

It puts students’ programming skills to work and offers new challenges. Seniors who had taken programming classes since they were freshmen embraced the project because it was unlike anything they had done, St. Laurent says. “We had kids who were excited about this different type of learning opportunity. I think they were just excited to do something different.”

Although the plans were provided by MIT, it was not an easy build. There was lots of trial and error along the way. “It might sound really simple but it was much more complicated when we got down to business and tried to go right through it. But it really was student-led. They were excited about it.”

They learn the dynamics of working on a team. “They had to understand the whole picture and how everything worked,” St. Laurent says. “So, it really was a collaborative team of kids with different skill sets who were challenged in new ways.”

Lessons in collaboration were just as important as the technological ones.“The computer was amazing and challenging and offered them lots of new skills, but there also was understanding the dynamics of working on a team and the frustrations.”

It taps into students’ passion. The project’s cutting-edge connection to a real-world initiative gave students the sense it wasn’t just an exercise. That real-world connection has fueled the innovation lab’s subsequent work on wearable technology. Students look for problems around them to solve. The results have been a jacket for bi­cyclists with turn signals on the back and gloves that charge phones and act as a keyboard.

Jerry Fingal had a 35-year career in newspapers and is now a freelance writer and editor specializing in education, business and finance.