The National Science Foundation has awarded a three-year, $1.3 million grant to a transdisciplinary team of researchers from the Lynch School of Education and Human Development and the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences for a project to engage low-income families in a participatory educational program involving restorative gardening practices and artificial intelligence.
The project, “Empowering Youth in STEM and Technological Careers through AI-enhanced Sustainable and Community-focused Urban Gardening,” builds on three recent NSF awards to the Lynch School totaling nearly $5 million, which have previously supported low-income high school students in similar agricultural technology projects, and the training of environmental science teachers. Faculty from the Lynch School, and the Engineering and Sociology departments, will co-lead the project’s management team.
“We are indebted to the NSF for its ongoing support,” said G. Michael Barnett, Lynch School professor of science education and technology, and the project’s principal investigator. “This proposal builds upon many years of work, and continues our focus to support youth to be leaders and changemakers in their own communities where they are learning and applying their scientific and technological knowledge to address issues of social and food justice.”
The project was boosted through receipt of a Schiller Institute Grant for Exploratory Collaborative Research (SI-GECR), which supports intra-University joint research and creative activities in the institute’s principal focus areas of energy, the natural environment, and health. The SI-GECR enabled the team to build the additional relationships, collect pilot data, and develop the necessary partners for the work.
In collaboration with the Louisiana School to Farm Program, and Boston, Waltham, and Springfield (Mass.) Public Schools, the project will engage 180 historically marginalized youth and their families from the Bay State and Louisiana in the design and construction of artificially intelligence-enhanced farming robots that enable youth to learn how to maintain a garden, and how to use physical computing tools to successfully manage the growth and production of nutritious food.
These automated urban gardens developed by partner company FarmBot, an open source, precision agriculture program, offer an opportunity to bridge traditional gardening and 21st-century technological skills while fostering community engagement by using emerging technologies to address food security issues.
The School to Farm Program, based at Louisiana State University’s College of Agriculture in Baton Rouge, provides resources for students, parents, and teachers to find educational materials related to agriculture and nutrition at both school and home. An additional partner includes Louisiana’s Helical Farms, which grows high-volume, high-yield crops in a small and controlled hydroponic environment that mitigates the risks of weather, pests, particulates, and pathogens, and needs just 10 percent of the water required by soil-grown produce.
“These gardens will serve as a link for youth, community, and younger peers to come together to learn and share how evolving knowledge and tools can be used to support and advance improvements in urban farming,” said Barnett. “This project also offers an innovative way to support students’ examination of careers across the disciplines of agriculture and computation through near-peer mentoring, particularly to re-engage youth who are opting out of STEM career paths.”
“These gardens will serve as a link for youth, community, and younger peers to come together to learn and share how evolving knowledge and tools can be used to support and advance improvements in urban farming. This project also offers an innovative way to support students’ examination of careers across the disciplines of agriculture and computation through near-peer mentoring, particularly to re-engage youth who are opting out of STEM career paths. ”
Avneet Hira, an assistant professor in the Engineering Department, noted that this project is a prime example of the types of interdisciplinary scholarship that an institution like BC can produce.
“With our collective work across education, engineering, environmental science, and sociology, we conceived a unique project idea that would not have been possible if we were working in our departmental silos,” she said. “We’re excited to work with our project partners in Massachusetts and Louisiana to center the voices and work of youth from minoritized communities in STEM, using community-based and participatory approaches.”
Assistant Professor of Sociology and Environmental Sciences Lacee A. Satcher said, “As a social scientist, I was so happy for the invitation to join this important project with colleagues from the Lynch School and Engineering. I’m looking forward to doing some great work with the Boston community on behalf of BC and NSF.”
Helen Z. Zhang, a senior research associate at the Lynch School, focused on the project’s youth development aspects.
“This program will build the capacity of our youth participants to work on transdisciplinary projects of computational science, artificial intelligence, and engineering, as well as develop youth leaders who will become role models in their community through near-peer mentorship,” she said. “We are very grateful to the NSF for its support of our project.”
Added Maureen E. Kenny, a Lynch School professor of counseling, developmental and educational psychology: “This work is critical to prepare youth for the future of work and support youth in understanding the role that STEM can play to improve and make their communities more just."
Phil Gloudemans | University Communications | May 2023