Experimenting with Hydroponic Gardening to Grow Strawberries

STEM STEAM Science Hydroponics

If you’re new to our blog, welcome! We generally talk education topics like STEM, STEAM, science, hands-on learning and maker spaces. But in our spare time, we tinker! And now that Jerry of Brain Brigade has officially retired from teaching…he has MORE spare time! We have been involved in many hydroponic and aquaponics projects in the classroom and maker space, but we have been diving in to various hydroponic methods of growing plants at home.

Last summer I visited Iowa and I noticed a really clever hydroponic tower that was growing lettuce. It was made of PVC pipe that wound around a central tower. I thought that the idea was great. It was compact and allowed for maximum use of growing space for sunlight and circulation of nutrient solution. This winter I began to wonder if something like this could be used to grow strawberries hydroponically. After a bit of research, I decided that I would try to make a tower similar to the one that I has seen.

STEM STEAM Science Hydroponics

This is a photo I took in Iowa of lettuce growing on a hydroponic tower.

As I looked at 4 inch PVC pipe I soon realized that it was very heavy and expensive. I decided to use a lighter plastic pipe that I found at Home Depot. It used the same 90 degree elbows that the heavier pipe used. I first constructed the frame that I would mount it on using 1 ½ inch PVC, elbows and a cross piece at the top to connect all of the frame. I mounted this frame on a wooden base and drilled holes to secure it with bolts. Next, I determined that the PVC pipe surrounding the frame would have to be cut at 25 inches. I bored 3 inch holes in the pipe using a circle drill and mounted the pieces to the frame using plastic straps and bolts. I also purchased a 10 gallon tub for my nutrient solution that sits inside the bottom middle of the frame.STEM STEAM Science Hydroponics

I ordered 50 strawberry plants from Jung’s called Tristar that is ideal for hanging baskets and produces a crop in summer and in fall. I also ordered strawberry nutrient from Amazon. My only concern, is that the pipe connections at the elbows will leak because I have not cemented them with PVC cement. I will use my pump from my hydroponic system in my basement to pump the nutrient solution to the plants. I won’t be using the pump during the summer, so it’s a nice way to utilize my materials all year long! Now. We just need it to get warm around these northern parts!

Maybe you’re thinking, “this is cool…” but aren’t quite ready to take on The Tower quite yet. You could give windowsill hydroponics a try to get your feet wet! It’s an excellent classroom project too.

How to Troubleshoot LEDs Like a Pro

LEDs STEAM STEM Maker Space Classroom Science

A huge part of our teaching philosophy is to help students develop persistence and become proficient at problem solving. But developing those skills isn’t always easy. We live it out around here so that it’s easier to teach in the classroom. We tinker in our spare time. We encourage the kids {actually, everyone} in our family to ask questions and work out solutions. We often ask for help and work together to solve a problem. We recently finished a new light up project; a greeting card that celebrates spring. We designed a cover with three flowers and put our tiny LED lights so that when the card is closed, the LEDs light up and illuminate the flowers. This particular circuit had two switches that were activated by a finger push. Since we were operating two switches from the same battery, we needed to hard wire the battery into the circuit and place different circuits for the lights. It was tricky to say the least, and since I had not tried this before, it took some time to think it through.

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space

I’m still not convinced that I have the best circuit path for this project. My plan had a small finger push button for each light. When I pushed down on a spot, a piece of copper tape that was stuck on the inside cover of the card made contact with the broken circuit of one light and completed the circuit thereby causing the light to come on. Needless to say, much tweaking was needed.

First, I had to make sure that the copper tape that completed the circuit was positioned exactly above the break in the circuit, so when I pushed down it contacted both ends of the broken circuit. Next, there seemed to be a problem with the LED lights that were in the circuit. I just could not get them to stay on. I finally determined that the copper tape was too close together and the lights were actually shorting themselves out.

Next, the circuit began to act up again and would not consistently light the bulbs. In checking and rechecking the circuit I found where the copper tape touched the battery, it was making contact with both the positive and negative portion or the battery and shorting the circuit.

STEM STEAM Science Classroom Maker Space

At times, it can be very frustrating troubleshooting whether it is circuits or programming. What I have learned from this is that there are many ways a circuit can fail. Hopefully, in the future it will help me problem solve more quickly.

You can try this card – we have two tutorials – a beginner version with no switches and an advanced version with the two switches!

Creating an Authentic Learning Environment in Your Classroom

What does it mean to have a Maker Space in your school? There is not a standard definition of what a maker space, maker lab, or tinkering corner should be. It can be as simple as a corner of your classroom where students can tinker, disassemble a broken computer, make a truss bridge with craft sticks, or just experiment with some safe chemicals. Making, tinkering, hacking are all terms tossed around liberally. But what does it mean in your classroom? The challenge is to allow your students to explore something that peaks their interest. Something that causes them to be engaged and ask questions. Allow your students to try something new and unknown. When you allow a child’s curiosity to drive his or her education, he or she will blow through barriers and boundaries that they’ve set on themselves and sometimes even that you’ve unknowing held.

The whole premise is to get ideas flowing, to fail and find solutions through trial and error, to answer the question what if? Or, it can be a dedicated room where there are many high tech machines that can create almost anything you need or want. The two primary factors are cost and space. You can make it what you want based on funding and space and your own comfort zone. The important thing is to get students tinkering, creating, being curious and making connections to real life….authentic learning. Just do it!

Take the first step. Get out of your rut, step into a world where you learn along with your students. Your students will love the experience and will benefit in ways that you couldn’t imagine.
Once I challenged my students to design a cardboard and duct tape boat that could hold two of them. The finished boat could have only one layer of water-proofing on the exterior. This simple challenge excited them so much that they were doing research on designs, building prototypes and discussing the best way to build their yachts. Of course, some just dove in and started building without any idea of how to do it, but isn’t that what it is all about?
Learning by doing, failing, trying again, and finally reaching success.
Too often, as teachers we want students to follow our guidelines because we are the “experts”, and for purposes of efficiency we can save time. But by making things easier for our students we are missing an important piece in the learning puzzle. Two key ideas, choice and trial and error, are critical to creativity and learning.
Check out our FREE Makers Space resource to learn more about how you can incorporate making in your classroom! Looking for some inspiration? Join our Facebook collaboration board for educators!

Introducing LEDs and Bright Fun to Your Students!


LEDs, or their long name, “Light Emitting Diodes” offer a great deal of cheap, impressive fun in a classroom or Maker Space. We’ve used LEDs with students as young as third grade with great success. Students can explore and create incredible projects once they understand the basics of LEDs. Using SMD LEDs offers many learning opportunities for exploring circuits, trial and error and persistence. Plus, they’re inexpensive…a bonus when you get big results without blowing your classroom budget.

When first exploring LEDs, I was intimidated. My first order from Sparkfun arrived and I couldn’t get the LEDs to work. As it turns out, I didn’t have the LEDs removed from the packaging correctly {true story!}. The first time I placed the LED onto the copper tape it lit up like magic. I was hooked. I wanted to light up everything in sight. It was like a new toy. What else could I make glow?

Completed 3D Washington Monument. It glows red like the real one {Safety first. I think so planes don’t hit it!}.

We’ve been using these powerful little lights mostly to enhance paper projects. We enjoy using them because of their low power consumption and long life span. They have great luminosity and can brighten a dark room. LEDs are great for teaching polarity because the energy can only flow one way through the light. They’re powerful and impressive. And kids love them.

Even Leprechaun’s are rumored to love LEDs!

After my own trials {ahem, having fun}, I was ready to bring them to the Maker Space. I started the students off with some holiday cards that had a template to follow. We created one where Rudolph’s nose glows and the other a Christmas Tree. Then we got crazy. We created a light-up, pop-up 3D glowing Valentine’s Day card. We built a 3D Washington Monument that lights up like the real deal! We made a simple St. Patrick’s Day card for younger students. And we keep exploring…most recently we created a Spring Card that has two switches. So.Much.Fun.

 

Experimenting with LEDs. How many can you light up at once and for how long?

The kids enjoy it as much as I do! I have had middle school students have great success. Once they grasp the basic understanding of parallel circuits, how to make switches and comprehend what a short circuit is, they incorporate them into their own projects.

We’re now experimenting to determine how long 14 LED lights will stay lit off of a coin cell battery. They were still glowing after an hour. With this new information, we hope to incorporate these LEDs into light up constellations that can be made into an interactive bulletin board where a student can press a button and see the constellation light up! We’ll keep you posted!

Maker Space Tour – Visiting an Elementary School Maker Space

Maker Space Cart Summit School

Yesterday, I visited some old friends who began a maker space in their school building. Jodi and Wendy visited me to get ideas about creating a space in their school three years ago. I was very impressed by the progress they have made while taking maker spaces to a whole new level. The excitement and enthusiasm they have generated in their school is really remarkable.

Not only have they created a maker space room off of the library, but they have also invested in four movable carts that can be wheeled into any classroom so that teachers can bring maker spaces to their rooms (see the photo above). The four carts were designed and built by a volunteer and are themed around building, electronics, creating and crafts. The carts are in use every day as the classroom teachers have integrated making into their grade level curriculum. Each cart has a built in storage cabinet with a foldable tabletop that essentially doubles the working space of the cart. Teachers are using the carts in reading, language arts, math, and social studies to help bring their subject matter alive.

Wendy told me about one teacher who read about caterpillars and had her students design and build caterpillars of their own. She also mentioned how non-English speakers are able to excel with creativity even though they may be struggling with the language. Learning disabled kids are also thriving because they can make connections to real life that they could not make before.

We spoke about how to generate interest in other buildings in the district. It seems that there is a fear that if they move away from the dictated curriculum that test scores will drop. I believe just the opposite will happen. As children become more engaged in learning, it becomes more fun and students learn with less effort. We need to take back our classrooms from the politicians and testing companies!

These are the Good Old Days

Exciting times. Kids today get to hang out in Maker Spaces and Maker Labs, smartphone in one hand and an Ipad in the other. Educators recognize that students need creative and curiosity-enhancing activities to develop problem solving skills and grit. Failure is acceptable. “We learn from failure.” “If you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t doing anything.” If you make a typo, you hit the backspace or let autocorrect take care of it. Life is good!

If you are yearning for the good old days, just turn off the air conditioning. Griff Niblack.

If you are yearning for the good old days, just turn off the air conditioning. Griff Niblack.

It’s Mrs. Brainiac and today’s subject is about how kids today have it made.

A few decades ago, schools had something called “home economics.” Girls took that class. It was all about cooking and sewing. Boys had “shop.” They used tools to make little wooden toys with wheels that you could pull with a string. And birdhouses. Sure, that’s all good. But what if the girls wanted to use a drill or saw? Or the boys wanted to whip up a fabulous cheese tortellini with sage and browned butter sauce? Wasn’t going to happen on that teacher’s watch! So many limits imposed on kids. Today, if a second grader wants to use an electric saw and cut up some wood and build a mini roller coaster to launch on the school grounds, just ask Brainiac Jerry. A girl wants to build a trebuchet and launch pumpkins and bowling balls on the playground, no problem.

Educators today identify that the creative process is a good thing to encourage. Kids that engage in engineering design process creating a Maker Space project can grow up to be engineers. Or chefs or app writers or whatever they want. The sky is the limit when it comes to the opportunities available to students in today’s world.

I’m not saying today’s world is perfect, it’s far from it. But we seem to have a raised social consciousness that makes me feel a bit hopeful. In spite of all the scary stuff we see on the news and hear on social media or even experience ourselves, there are still a lot of positive improvements that have come about over the last few decades.

Old boring food pyramid

Old boring food pyramid

USDA MyPlate is colorful and fun!

USDA MyPlate is colorful and fun!

 

Some examples from my lifetime…when I was a little girl, female teachers had to wear dresses and stockings to school. Girl students had to wear dresses. What’s the big deal, right? Ask me that in January while you are walking to school in 10 degree weather.

School girl circa 1965

School girl circa 1965

If kids were cognitively challenged, they could end up in a special class or a special school or in an institution of some kind. Now, we try to find ways to help them learn and develop skills to become a productive and happy member of society.

Until the 1970’s, there wasn’t much of a foster care system or a social services agency. Emergency Medical Services barely existed. Most areas might have an ambulance but there were no training requirements and barely any real first aid performed. It was just a vehicle to drive you to the hospital, sometimes equipped with just a driver and no other personnel.

Okay, I know you are arguing in your head with me that the good old days when Mrs. Brainiac was young were better, safer and more innocent then today. If that is the case, then how do you explain “The Art Project Every Child Made for Their Parents.”

Gather round while Mrs. Brainiac tells the tale of a classroom full of fresh faced little cherubs excitedly molding doughy blobs of clay into a gift for their parents. Each day, they would carefully wrap it in wet paper towels to keep it moist, working on it day after day until the exciting day that we fired up the kiln. The kiln would heat up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (KilnTempChart) while emitting fumes including carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, hydrogen fluoride and toxic metal vapors. So, stay with me, kids….we have a kiln going at 2,000 degrees in an art room with dangerous fumes permeating the entire school ventilation system, all to bake a lovely gift for mom and dad. Yes, kids risked their lives to make an ASHTRAY for their parents. A lovely little poop-colored clay carcinogenic ash receptacle that now has cooled off enough to coat with a lead-based glaze.

Fortunately for the teachers, they could retreat to the “smoking lounge” to take a break from the heat the kiln generated.

Not an ashtray. Made in Wisconsin 2016.

Not an ashtray. Made in Wisconsin 2016.

“And stay right here ’cause these are the good old days. These are the good old days.” Anticipation, sung by Carly Simon.

Aquaponics 101

Adding-Tilapia-to-HS-Hydroponics

I’m assisting Oconomowoc High School with the aquaponics system in their greenhouse. So far we have set up two systems with 50 tilapia in one tank and 50 perch in a second tank. We are facing some challenges with our systems from the heat that is building when the outside temperature reaches 70 degrees or above. Tilapia need a water temperature of about 80 degrees, while perch need a water temperature of about 70 degrees. Our greenhouse reaches over 90 degrees and can see temperatures of 110. Before the weather gets too warm we need to find a way to keep the water cool enough for the fish to survive. Enter Travis. Travis is a second shift custodian at the high school and has significant experience in building aquaponics systems. I sat down with him over lunch the other day and was very impressed by his knowledge and experience. Travis has a high school diploma but has so much knowledge that I thought he had a college degree. Travis has had much hands on experience fabricating and problem solving over 150 aquaponic systems. I asked Travis if he had a degree. His response was that he just had a high school diploma but he picked up a lot of money and expertise doing side aquaponics jobs. He also has sought out many experts and used collaboration to build his knowledge.

Our discussion just reinforced my belief that we need more individuals with the ability to fabricate, and to use their hands to build projects that solve problems. I’m very impressed by his ability to think out of the box. After about an hour of talking, we had a solution to our overheating problem. It struck me that what Travis is doing is just the thing I want my students to do. Think out of the box, collaborate, seek expert advice, problem solve. The world could use more people like Travis!