Out of This World Idea with a Local Impact: Middle School Students Use Vertical Farming System to Feed Families

March 16, 2023

Tucked behind Luther Jackson Middle School is a small ordinary-looking shed, but step inside and you’ll see a futuristic farming operation run by engineering students. Plastic towers are bursting with green spinach and lettuce leaves that will soon be donated to the school’s food pantry. Next to the tower sits a large circular water tank that will house about fifty tilapia fish. The complex ecosystem, known as hydroponics, will allow the fish waste to nourish the plants as the plants filter the fish’s water. The project has been in the works for two years and is now coming to life. 

“The students have worked on every part of this,” said Mark Smith, the director of the Luther Jackson Middle School ESTEEM Center. “They’ve adjusted the lights, adjusted the temperature with fans and heaters, adjusted the water levels, all of it. They have to get the environment just right for this to be successful.”

To begin the process, students place seeds in coconut based plugs and wait for them to begin sprouting. Next, they insert the seedlings into plastic towers lined with wicking fibers. Below sits a trough of water which is pumped to nozzles above. Water continuously drips down through the towers, hydrating the plants, and back into the trough to be recirculated. The system uses no dirt and only about two gallons of water a month, which is significantly less space and water used in traditional farming methods. 

“In the future, maybe even during my lifetime, we could be going to Mars!” said eighth grader Dahlia Kassio. “It’s so important to have a plan to create food with limited resources. Our plants grow in three weeks. It’s very optimized.”

The hydroponic system uses towers and a large fish tank to grow food.

“It’s also great to save space and water because this method can be used in food deserts,” said eighth grader Vivian Nguyen. “We’re producing about an acre’s worth of produce per tower. It’s a big deal!”

Students started the project two years ago with beta testing plants and a small fish tank. It’s been a lengthy and collaborative effort, with all of Smith’s engineering classes working together. As eighth graders move on to high school, new seventh graders join and are mentored by veteran students who have worked on the project for an entire year. They say it's helpful to have discussions about what’s gone wrong in the past and how they can improve in the future. 

“The hardest part is making sure everything works properly together,” said eighth grader Camryn Swift. “There’s a lot that can go wrong, and a lot has gone wrong! But you learn every time something goes wrong.”

“We’ve had PH problems and ammonia problems that have really set us back,” Dahlia adds. “We do a lot of research. We try to figure out if other people have had the same problem as us and go from there. Sometimes the solution isn’t so obvious. So we have to keep an open mind.”

A student shows off the plants growing at Luther Jackson MS.

To get the project off the ground, students filled out purchase orders to get the required supplies using grant funding from Northrop GrummanDominion Energy, and the Micron Opportunity Fund at the Community Foundation. Students also publish their findings in the school’s engineering student newspaper ESTEEMStream.News, which is the largest middle school publication in the United States. Smith hopes this project based learning will create a life-long love for science and engineering. 

“It’s been very cool and I really like this project because it’s very hands-on,” said Vivian. “But mostly I feel very proud because we’ve grown a huge bin of lettuce to give to families who can’t access fresh vegetables. That feels great.”

Learn more about STEAM at FCPS. 

The hydroponics shed behind Luther Jackson Middle School.

The Aquaponics Lab is part of Luther Jackson Middle School's ESTEEM Center for Equity in Science, Technology, Engineering, English and Math. The ESTEEM Center allows students to choose their own projects in what Smith describes as "Dream Inspired Planning."  Students take ownership over their projects with a focus on innovation and problem solving. The Luther Jackson Middle's ESTEEM Center brings this approach to elementary and high school students creating a K-12 pipeline of students interested in STEM.