Students at Iowa BIG have been working on projects related to sustainable agriculture since the beginning of the program and students have been growing food in a shipping container outside the NewBo City Market for the last five years. I asked Jefferson junior and first year BIG student Jenna Griffith to explain what hydroponics is and what the team has been doing.

“Hydroponics is essentially water farming. It’s a way of growing pretty much anything without soil, instead using water as your medium. Nutrients that are usually found in soil are added to the water to help things grow. It sounds weird because you’re only using water, but hydroponics actually uses less water than traditional farming since the water gets recycled and used over and over. Hydroponics also is more space efficient because you can condense more nutrients in the water than you can in most areas of soil.”

The project team partners with the NewBo City Market,  who provides them with space and electricity to the shipping container.

“My team is coming up with ideas to implement hydroponic farming into urban areas, and we explored two types of systems. We used an NFT system, which is best described as a nutrient film. Water trickles through the system with plants suspended above it, and the roots absorb the water from below. The system we explored and transitioned to – an ebb and flow table – starts with water initially flooding the grow area, followed by the water draining. Water

provides the nutrients for the plants but also allows periods of time for the plants to absorb oxygen that it would normally receive from soil. My team also performs a lot of experiments within the system to test different factors to see how they affect plant growth and efficiency.”

Jenna showed me around the container, highlighting the experiment her team worked on that week. But why would teenagers want to experience this alternative growth system? Why does this project survive five years worth of students, with interest in the project never dwindling?

“The container is pretty educational in its purpose. 

Hydroponics is a fairly new agricultural development, so there’s a lot of knowledge to be gained from purely experimenting with the system. Throughout the project, we’re also documenting and sharing what we’re learning. Initially, we had more concrete goals like planning to grow a certain amount of lettuce in the container. However, the way the project has changed through experiments, our container no longer had a guaranteed outcome, as that’s the whole idea of experimentation – to learn the best possible ways”

The hydroponics project encompasses a lot of the core values of Iowa BIG. A framework BIG practices called Modern Agile, follows the four guiding principles: Make People Awesome, Make Safety a Prerequisite, Experiment and Learn Rapidly, and Deliver Value Continuously.  This team experiments and learns rapidly almost non-stop. The entire project is about asking “what if?” and then seeing the results. With freedom to experiment and learn rapidly, the team is able to explore the idea of creating an ebb and flow table instead of sticking with the initial design. The team conducts experiments within the container to answer their “what if?” questions. Robust learning across disciplines in science, English, sociology, business, and development of their 21st century skills make this a powerful project.

“I’ve learned a lot about plant science and how to grow lettuce. I didn’t plan on it going into the project, but I ended up learning a lot of construction skills through building systems within the container. My team learned engineering skills through figuring out how to get nutrients to the plants.

“I’m not sure exactly what I want to do after high school, but because of this project I’m definitely exploring horticulture. I’ve also considered landscape architecture and sustainable agriculture, and hydroponics flows with that very nicely. I want to do something that uses plants to do something to benefit our community, and I think urban agriculture is the gateway to get there.”