Skip to main content

Secondary navigation:

Office of News & Public Affairs

With $250k NSF Grant, BC Prof Teaches
Boston Youth Science Via Soil-Free Farming

partnership with salvation army, stem garden institute marks
boston’s largest hydroponic gardening initiative for youths

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. (October 2012) – For a group of Dorchester youths, the results of their next science project may end up on their kitchen tables. The city’s largest indoor hydroponic gardening initiative for youths will give children and teens a unique opportunity to learn about science, nutrition and the economics of food production, the organizers say.

G. Michael Barnett
G. Michael Barnett
(Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $250,000 grant to Boston College Lynch School of Education Associate Professor Michael Barnett, who will partner with the Salvation Army’s Kroc Center in Dorchester and the non-profit STEM Garden Institute. Launching this fall, the initiative will teach 450 Dorchester youths and teens how to use the innovative, soil-free gardening technology to grow fruits and vegetables and then sell the harvest at local farmers’ markets.

The after-school initiative, which will serve 300 students in the fourth through sixth grades and another 150 high school students, is the largest of its kind for youths in the city’s history and promises to not only teach valuable lessons about science and health, but also give students the chance to earn a percentage of the proceeds.

“Gardening is the ultimate hands-on science project and the end result is absolutely delicious,” said Barnett, a specialist in science education who has used hydroponic gardening projects to teach science lessons in Boston schools. “This project takes to a new level our efforts to teach the city’s children about science, technology, engineering and math, as well as nutrition, health, and economics.”

Starting later this fall, Barnett, the principal investigator for the NSF grant, the Kroc Center and the Boston-based STEM Garden Institute will launch the out-of-school program using the latest technology, known as vertical hydroponic systems – in this case, multi-tiered plastic garden beds where ceramic beads anchor plants as they are nourished with water, fertilizer and grow lights.

The project has also enlisted the support of corporate partners American Hydroponics, of California, and Cambridge-based GYO Stuff, a retailer specializing in supplying urban and indoor gardeners.

The NSF funding will also create an intergenerational learning opportunity, said Barnett, where youths and senior citizens work together; provide fresh vegetables and fruits served in the kitchens of the Kroc Center; and support the creation of a year-round farmers’ market at the center’s Upham’s Corner location.

The gardening technology has been shown to effectively engage students in interdisciplinary science because hydroponics require that students apply aspects of chemistry, physics, biology, and economics as they care for and manage their crops, said Barnett, who has worked with students at the St. Columbkille Partnership School in Brighton, as well as students from Brighton High School and the West Roxbury Education Complex, which send students to BC’s College Bound pre-collegiate program.

“Engaging youth in raising their own food, particularly urban youth, has been shown to be influential and effective in supporting the development of interest toward science, healthier eating habits, and supporting the development of critical thinking and analysis skills,” Barnett said. “Hydroponic technology allows us to engage youth in growing food and learning on a year-round basis.”

Barnett said the project can help improve science and math education for schoolchildren, particularly students in city schools, as well as combat high rates of obesity among young people and respond to the scarcity of fresh produce for sale in urban neighborhoods—the so-called “Food Desert”.

“This program can serve as a model for both schools and communities, particularly thanks the partnership with the Kroc Center and the STEM Garden Institute,” said Barnett. “It doesn’t matter where you live or what you farm, there is a deep sense of satisfaction when you look at a harvest you’ve helped to create. We’re excited about the opportunity to make that experience possible for children in Boston.”

—Ed Hayward is associate director of the Office of News & Public Affairs;