Ryan Somma \ CC BY-SA 2.0

A three-year, $2-million continuation grant from the National Science Foundation will support a Boston College Lynch School of Education initiative to engage Massachusetts urban public school students in the science and enterprise of hydroponic gardening.  

The project, entitled “Change Makers: Urban Youth Food Justice Ambassadors,” began September 1 under the leadership of Professors G. Michael Barnett (principal investigator), and David Blustein and Belle Liang (co-principal investigators), in partnership with College Bound, a program within the Lynch School’s Urban Outreach Initiatives under the direction of Catherine Wong.  

The project will involve 840 public middle and high school students in Boston, Springfield, and Waltham schools who will learn how to grow ethnically familiar produce without soil, and to sell those products at local farmers’ markets, with the guidance of trained, near-peer mentors. Mentoring will be focused not just on understanding the science and technology of soil-less farming but on achieving long-term academic success.

“We have consistently found that social justice is the ‘hook’ that generates the motivation for youth to learn about science to spark change in their community,” said Barnett.  “Participants, while learning the underlying scientific processes of hydroponic farming and techniques of entrepreneurship, will introduce and celebrate ethnic diversity within their communities.”

All middle and high school participants will receive vouchers for their respective local farmers’ markets to encourage them to purchase healthy produce; additionally, a digital cookbook will be produced.

“In addition to learning science, we want to change the perception that farmers’ markets are not for people of color or lower-income residents,” added Barnett.  “The first step in that process to create a path of entry for those who do not think that farmers’ markets are for them.”

The participants will share their work with a larger community of urban farmers at an upcoming Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference.

The project will operate in partnership with LSOE’s College Bound, a pre-collegiate enrichment and support program for urban high school students which aims to empower students to become positive change agents in their schools and communities.  Students learn about a variety of important issues impacting their communities through a social justice and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) perspective.

Barnett also developed Urban Hydrofarmers, a NSF-funded initiative that engages high school students in math and science through hydroponic farming and green energy technology. This work was showcased at the 2017 STEM Video Showcase where the project was recognized with a Presenters’ Choice award.

Students become entrepreneurs by selling their produce at local farmers’ markets, part of the project’s mission of preparing a “green-collar” workforce. Barnett and his team have also partnered with the STEM Garden Institute, GroundWork Lawrence, and Salve Regina University to bring hydroponic farming into schools throughout the U.S.    

—Phil Gloudemans | University Communications