Figure 02. Middle school Urban Vertical Agriculture Research Scholars planning the building of the NFT system. (Photo Credit: Mauricio Gonzalez)In 2003, Mauricio Gonzalez, founder and director of the Marine Biology Research Program presently at the New York Harbor School, was put in charge of a greenhouse that had just been built in the courtyard of the Frederick Douglass Academy (FDA), Harlem, NYC. Shortly before this, he had been running a small germination project in his classroom to teach his students the basics of experimentation and life science. Mauricio recounts spending his meager new-teacher paycheck on these materials while barely making the rent for the month.
Freshly out of college and with an appetite for innovation, he was hoping to be given the opportunity to run the greenhouse when he first caught glimpse of it during a tour of the school grounds. Mr. Hearn, then science chair at FDA, took notice of Mauricio’s passion for science and early success with an after school program called “Schwartz Science.” Over the span of 6 years, Mauricio’s students transformed the greenhouse and courtyard into a thriving Urban Vertical Agriculture Research Program, yearly producing basil, lettuce, tomatoes, and tilapia. The techniques used to grow these vegetables and fish were novel for New York City at the time. Hydroponics, aquaponics and aeroponics were new words for most. Mauricio realized that the science of hydroponics made for a great middle through high school inquiry-based curriculum.
His middle school students built intricate recirculating systems called “NFT” which stands for Nutrient Film technique; A-Frame structures; and recirculating aquaculture systems. They soon began experimenting with all kinds of novel designs and presenting them at yearly science fairs. Curious visitors from all over NYC came to visit: small scale urban gardeners to the mayor himself, Bloomberg. They all came to see our young team of budding urban scientists carefully weighing and mixing their nutrient chemicals and adjusting pH using acids, bases, and professional grade sensors.
Not content with just working in the greenhouse, his students tuned their gaze outside and built a beautiful elevated garden in the courtyard equipped with a wrap-around, fully automatic irrigation system. Projects like these gave rise to the idea of engaging young minds with real-world service learning projects. Mauricio also realized that given the right space and time, all students could find a way to succeed. With these successes came offers to build gardens around Harlem and nursing homes as part of a service learning grant from Purdue University. What started off as a small classroom experiment turned into a thriving laboratory of plant science and student inquiry. Mr. Hearn later recounted that “putting Mr. Gonzalez at the helm of the greenhouse was the best decision he had made at FDA.” To see more images of our students at work click here. Our next post will showcase the marine science and air quality work undertaken by these scholars to address problems outside the school itself.
These projects were made possible by the generous support of our sponsors, Mr. Robert Schwartz, The Hayden Foundation, Purdue University’s EPICS engineering grant, and Cabbage Hill Farm.