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Food computer is catalyst for growth at school innovation lab

By Jerry Fingal
May 6, 2019
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At Andover High School in Massachusetts, students programmed a sophisticated  computer-controlled hydroponic growing system – otherwise known as a food computer – to raise mint. Their work earned them a gold medal at an international tech competition in China.

It was a high honor, beyond anyone’s expectations when they started out. But the students’ efforts had a bigger effect closer to home: It kickstarted Andover High’s innovation lab, where student participation jumped from just a handful of students a few years ago to more than 90 this year.

It was also 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,” said Shelagh St. Laurent, the school’s digital learning coach. “We’re really excited about it and the kids are, too.”

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The food computer project, which the students dubbed the Smart Garden, was an outgrowth of the school’s student technology help desk. As the help desk evolved, the team 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, which uses an XBOX Kinect camera to project contour lines on “land forms” created in sand.

The students who built the sandbox were invited to present their project at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was at MIT that students were introduced to a food computer, part of the institute’s Open Agriculture Initiative focused on creating innovative ways to produce food.

The Andover students found fresh inspiration in the food computer. Using directions provided by MIT and a couple hundred dollars’ worth of supplies, the students embarked on building their own.

Design thinking at the core of the innovation lab

Over the summer, St. Laurent and another teacher attended the Henry Ford Learning Institute to be trained in design thinking education. With the new curriculum and training, work on the Smart Garden proceeded.

“It ended up being about 10 kids and they collaborated to work on different aspects of the project,” St. Laurent said. “We had a team of hardware experts and software experts and then a team that actually built this hydroponic garden that was housed in the computer acrylic box.”

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.”

The students grew mint, which is hardy and grows quickly. But choosing what to grow was the easy part.

Students were challenged by programming and collaboration skills

Students had to program the software with "climate recipes" to control and monitor conditions inside the growing chamber, including temperature, humidity, oxygen, and water nutrient levels. They installed sensors attached to a circuit board that switched on and off controlling mechanisms -- fan, lamps and a humidifier.

“We had students who were in AP programming classes who knew the code and really understood the software behind it but it was a huge challenge to connect the hardware to the software and get things functioning,” St. Laurent said. “The students had never participated in anything quite like this.

“They had to understand the whole picture and how everything worked. So, it really was a collaborative team of kids with different skill sets that were challenged in new ways.”

Seniors who had taken programming classes since they were freshmen embraced the project because it was unlike anything they had done, St. Laurent said. It put their programming skills to work and offered them new challenges.

“We had kids who were excited about this different type of learning opportunity. I think they were just excited to do something different and apply skills from multiple classes that they had been taking in a new way.”

Just as valuable as the technical skills the students learned were the lessons about collaboration, St. Laurent said.

“They learned a lot about working as a team and learning from each other. I think there's a lot to be valued in that piece in itself.

“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.”

Successful projects spurred interest from other students

The students were invited to present their project at Harvard’s Learn Launch Classroom of the Future Showcase. A member of the audience from the Chinese Academy of Science invited the team to the 37th annual Beijing Youth Science Creation Competition. Three students and two teachers attended the competition in 2017 where the team won a gold medal.

Which brings us back to the school’s innovation lab. That success ignited student interest and helped launch it into a new realm.

“What happened after we went through that wonderful experience, we came back and people started hearing about the class and more students wanted to join and the numbers rose quickly. So, as that happened we've really adapted our curriculum to serve more students.”

Ninety-five students will rotate through the innovation lab classes this. In the last two semesters, students have been working on wearable technology projects. There’s been a jacket for bicyclists that has turn signals, a glove that acted as a keyboard and another glove with solar panels that acts as a phone charger.

“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 said.

Jerry Fingal is a freelance writer and editor who covers education, business and agriculture. or who covers education, business and agriculture.


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