My Season of Hydroponics

If you’d like to try hydroponics in your maker space or classroom it is a great way to get kids to fabricate, problem solve, make mistakes and experience authentic learning. Many designs for simple hydroponic systems exist online with inexpensive materials. The activity is a perfect STEM activity and integrates math, science and a bit of chemistry into a unit or lesson. You also don’t need a lot of room and can even do it on a windowsill!

Sue and I have also moved from a small condo to a ranch home, so these past three months have been hectic to say the least! We are now in the middle of a full scale remodel. As I type this, carpenters and electricians are working. Jolene and her husband, Phil, also moved. The entire Brain Brigade Team has been shaken up. We’re finally settling back into our Brain Brigade routine and it feels good to be back!

My winter season has been devoted to growing my greens hydroponically. I have also just completed a hydroponic strawberry tower. I can’t wait for spring to get here so I can get  the strawberries growing! I will grow the strawberries outside using my system.

My lettuce is doing great but my spinach is not so great. As you can see by the photo, the spinach is in the foreground and is quite twiggy. I think the pH may be off for the spinach. I’ll do some small adjustments to see if it responds. I began the lettuce and spinach about three weeks before transporting them into my hydroponics system. The floating bed has nutrient solution flowing past the roots. My system is about 24 inches wide and about five feet long. It is made of 2x4s with a bottom of plywood. In this box a pond liner coats the bottom and sides and a hole is bored through the bottom on the plywood at one end. The nutrient solution is pumped up to the box and flows past the roots and down the drain back to the reservoir. I’ve been enjoying lettuce all winter, picked fresh right from my basement. It doesn’t get better than that!

This can be done in a classroom, too! We have highlighted some steps in a series on hydroponics earlier in the blog. Start here to begin learning more!

Air Pressure Experiments (IV): The Big Can Crush

I have a series of air pressure experiments (Air Pressure I – The Small Can Crusher, Air Pressure II – Prank, Air Pressure III – AnticsBernoulli’s Principle), that I’ve done over the years that always amaze my students. I have fun doing these, too. I think when I enjoy a classroom demonstration, my students tend to enjoy it more and participate more, too. Our air pressure science experiments are hands on and applicable to real life. Plus, they’re impressive (or hilarious – check out Air Pressure Prank and Air Pressure Antics). These science activities gets students thinking about air pressure which is an ambiguous concept for students to grasp. We take air pressure for granted. We don’t think about it very often. We notice it in our bags of chips when we’re flying on an air plane. We notice it in the wind and weather. But overall, it’s not as obvious as it is with this Big Can Crush experiment.

What this video doesn’t show are the steps we took before doing this demonstration. We used a clean can, marked square inches, discussed various math concepts like square units and cubic units, and of course air pressure! We heated up some water in this can, removed it from the heat and screwed on the cap. What do you think will happen? Most of my students think it will explode!

Watch what happens:

Air pressure is a force acting on us and in us every moment. If it wasn’t for air pressure in our bodies we’d flatten and crumple like this can! Check our bundled download to try all of these experiments in your own classroom.

Hydroponics 101.4: Light Requirements

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I’ve been growing plants using hydroponics for a few years now, both at home and in the classroom. For the first several years of doing hydroponics and aquaponics systems, I used a bank of T-5 fluorescent bulbs and they worked okay. But in this last planting, which I have set up in my basement, I purchased a bank of LED lights. I am passionately green and I read that LEDs are much more energy efficient and last much longer than any other type of bulb. I also read that LEDs can be tailored to provide the exact wavelengths of light for plants and flowers. You see, plants love light from the blue and red ends of the spectrum. While fluorescents provide some of that light, much of a fluorescent’s light is white and that is a waste of energy because plants use very little white light.


We’re currently in a series exploring Hydroponics {read our previous entries 101.1, 101.2, 101.3}.


The bank of LEDs was about $275 dollars. This was comparable to the cost of a T-5 bank of fluorescent bulbs, but I was astounded at the small size of the LED bank!

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I was blown away by the light though! What the LED bank lacked in size, it more than made up for in intensity. The instructions stated that the light should be hung at least 24 inches above the plants. I was able to hang it at about 22 inches. I was stunned that the light covered an area of about 2×4 feet where the plants were located. This from a bank of lights that is five inches wide and 18 inches long! My fluorescent bank was 22 inches wide and 46 inches long.

I left the light on while I worked in the basement. After about 15 minutes I started to see everything in a green aura. The intensity and wavelength of the light was affecting my vision. I decided to turn off the light and construct an enclosure around my plants that had Mylar reflective material on the sides to reflect the light back on to the plants.

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My plants are now bathed in blue and red light and are growing wonderfully.

Oh, and my vision is back to normal.

What the Science Classroom is Missing

Last Saturday, I had a wonderful time constructing and launching foam rockets with a group of kindergarten through eighth grader students at an event in Milwaukee. It was a take-off on our product called Rocket Math. The students constructed foam rockets and launched them at a pre-determined angle to try to determine what the optimum angle was for achieving the greatest distance. The event was truly a STEM activity. The project was hands on and allowed students to use various tools from scissors to rulers to hot glue.

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I had one seventh grade girl build seven rockets and test each one. She built rockets with lengths of three feet down to four inches and tested them for greatest distance. I asked her if science was her favorite subject and she replied no, it was art. I asked why science wasn’t and she replied that her teacher just make them read and answer questions in class. This troubled me. I realize that reading about science is important in acquiring ideas and information regarding events, people and experiments that have occurred in the past, but more importantly, science is about doing.

Too often as teachers, we are crunched by the time necessary to cover the curriculum and the demands of a system that assumes that by pouring knowledge into students and having them regurgitate that knowledge on a test is somehow teaching them science.

Science is about trial and error, failure, revising hypotheses, thinking out of the box and using engineering design principles. Too many texts provide information and experiments that amount to nothing more than a recipe with a predetermined outcome. These oversimplified and childish activities don’t give students a sense of real science and how it is conducted. As a teacher, I would urge you to break away from those kinds of activities and give your students some authentic challenges. Sure, it takes more time and planning, but the reward is a greater sense of enjoyment for you and your students and an appreciation of real science.

Friday Follies: Meet the Parent

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I snagged her on the way out the door this morning. She’s going to flip when she sees I used this photo. She thinks she looks terrible – I think she’s adorable!

This morning we’re going to give you a little Behind the Scenes Tour at Brain Brigade. Well, really, I’m going to introduce you to my mom who keeps this place from exploding during our hands-on science projects. My parents have been married for a long time. I don’t exactly know how long because no one here is talking (but…if you ask my four-year old, Finn, he’ll tell you about 500 years). My mom has seen more of my dad’s crazy and creative classroom projects than she can recount. Sometimes my dad tested his science experiments and projects at home. And he’s always making something or tinkering around the house. She has stories to tell.

Sue will be joining us here at the blog a little more regularly. She’s funny. And intelligent. And organized. And she’s got all the dirt on my dad. Sue works for Fisher & Paykel…and is a sleep medicine expert. She has worked in the sleep industry for over 20 years. First as a sleep technologist and now working on the sleep products side helping people with sleep disorders get better sleep. If you have a question, she is not a doctor! But she probably has seen it happen or has some good suggestions to make sleeping easier for those of you who struggle. Leave your comments and fan mail below 😉

When Sue isn’t working you can find her attempting amazing feats while riding a hover board, working on her house (like right now at this moment she’s actually tiling a back splash in her kitchen!), or find her hanging out with her grand-kids (she has five). She also loves to travel. She loves to read. And she totes her little dog, Daisy, around with her often.
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Daisy riding the hoverboard!

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My dog Odin making little to no attempt to ride the hoverboard…

She has never had a specific hobby, until this week. After learning how to tile her kitchen back splash she is now ready to tile anything.
“It’s so picky and annoying and I loved every minute of it! Even the clean up is easy!” – yes, that is a direct quote!
She’s the ultimate multitasker. And you’re in for a treat!