WEST CHESTER, PA — From planting seeds to harvesting produce, students at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health Pennsylvania are gaining hands-on experience in hydroponic farming, the process of growing plants without soil, using only nutrient-rich water.
Since January, youth who participate in the Employment Training Program at Devereux Pennsylvania Children’s Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Services (CIDDS) Learning Center have been growing lettuce in a vertical farming unit called a “Flex Farm” that is on loan from Fluxspace, a Pennsylvania-based educational consultant.
“Teaching youth about hydroponic farming has been a great addition to our Employment Training Program,” said Devereux Pennsylvania CIDDS Learning Center Education Director Susan Nice, MSW. “Students are learning where food comes from and how to grow it. Our individuals are involved in the process every step of the way, and are filled with a sense of pride and accomplishment when they get to see – and eat – the fruits of their labor.”
Cultivating new skills
By participating in hydroponic farming, students are acquiring valuable job, life and social skills.
“Our youth are fully engaged in the process – they help set up the farming unit; plant lettuce seeds; complete weekly chemical and maintenance checks; and harvest the produce,” explained Devereux Pennsylvania CIDDS Learning Center Employment Training and Transition Coordinator Ladislao Buljevich, M.A. “Through these tasks, they are gaining functional skills, such as learning how to read measurements and numbers, use a calendar and tell time. In addition, they are discovering the importance of teamwork and following directions, as well as nutrition and maintaining a healthy diet.”
Fluxspace Director of Innovation Ryne Anthony also noted, “Organizations like Devereux are using the Flex Farm to provide engaging, hands-on, authentic science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning experiences in classrooms, libraries, STEM labs, cafeterias, and more. With its ease of use and the accompanying curriculum, the Flex Farm allows students to experience many different interdisciplinary topics, such as sustainability, water quality, plant science, math and entrepreneurship. It is a true transformative learning experience where students become ‘problem solvers,’ using an innovative hydroponics system to grow sustainable, fresh food to feed their local communities. This experience provides students with a sense of ownership, something to be proud of, and something to get excited about.”
From farm to table
Buljevich says hydroponic lettuce grows from seed to harvest in about five to six weeks, and the lettuce the students have grown throughout the year has been put to good use.
“We’ve tried to plan our harvests around our cafeteria’s food schedule so the lettuce can be used on the menu,” Buljevich shared. “Our students really enjoy watching the plants grow on a weekly basis and tasting the lettuce they’ve harvested. Our ultimate goal would be to harvest enough produce to donate to a local food bank. That would be a great way for our kids to give back to their community.”
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