Champaign schools' hydroponic-gardening program enriching students, dragons

Champaign schools' hydroponic-gardening program enriching students, dragons

South Side and Stratton Elementary second-graders aren't the only ones benefiting from a new hydroponics — or soil-less plant growing — initiative at their schools: At South Side, five pet bearded dragons are also reaping the harvest.

Part-time teacher Michelle Greear won a grant from the Champaign Urbana Schools Foundation that allowed hydroponic materials to be set up at both schools for two purposes: teaching kids about gardening and providing a source of food for South Side's pet bearded dragons.

"It cost $5 a week to feed them kale and other greens," Greear said. "Most teachers were paying out of their own pockets. At $5 a week, that adds up."

Earlier this year, the equipment necessary for hydroponic plant growth was delivered to the schools, and they embarked on what was new territory for both her and the students: growing plants indoors without soil.

In two classrooms at South Side, plants ranging from kale to three kinds of mint to green beans sit under bright lights and intake nutrient-infused water in lieu of soil. If it sounds like a hard sell to second-graders, Greear insists it hasn't been.

"Not all of them have seen anything like this, so it's been a good way to expose them to growth cycles," she said.

The second-graders have done everything from planting to PH-testing the water, and Greear said they helped brainstorm reasons why one hydroponics setup wasn't working.

This one, attached vertically to a classroom wall, had pumps that were supposed to drip water down to the plants. But when the plants died, it was immediately clear something wasn't working right. Greear reached out to University of Illinois professionals for suggestions, and her second-graders helped look at the equipment.

"I think it's important for them to see that teachers do fail, too, just like them, and we have to figure out alternatives if something doesn't work," she said.

Since starting the project, the second-graders have not only planted but also have cloned plants.

"Cloning has been exciting — I've never done that before," South Side student Adam Miles said.

The students were to take their plants outdoors and place them in a garden. Since the South Side students have been further along, the second-graders led a Skype call with a Stratton class of older students recently, teaching them what they'd learned so far.

"I was a little bit scared because they're a little bit older than us and we're so young," Lanona Reynolds said.

But her classmate, Olivia Roundtree, disagreed.

"I feel proud because we know more about it than them," she said. "It's been pretty exciting to see our plants grow."

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