Lessons Learned with GrowLab
It is not absolutely clear who is more enthusiastic about the GrowLab in Mr. Flint’s classroom–the class or Mr. Flint. There is no doubt, however, that there is a whole lot of learning and fun going on in the fifth grade in Cambridge Central School in Cambridge, New York.
In this kindergarten through twelfth grade rural school of about 1200 students Carl Flint has found his “calling” as an elementary school science teacher. Formerly an agriculture teacher at the secondary level, he left teaching for 12 years to pursue his dream of becoming a dairy farmer. His farming phase over, he returned to the classroom in 1995 to teach younger students. When his brother alerted him to the GrowLab program, Carl jumped at the opportunity to provide hands-on experience in growing and tending plants to his students. In his small school he has some discretion with the science curriculum and is able to work information about plants into it for the two sections of 25 kids each that he teaches every year.
The GrowLab program for school children is sponsored by the National Garden Bureau (NGB) in a joint venture with the National Gardening Association. In a matching funds program, NGB and participating seed companies donate 6 GrowLabs a year to schools all across the country. GrowLab units are commercially designed and constructed for self-contained, tabletop seed-starting and seedling management. Essentially a metal frame that supports two 4 foot long, easily adjusted fixtures that hold fluorescent growing lights, each unit is 52 inches wide and 23 inches deep, 39 inches tall. Each is equipped with a timer, convenient trays to hold seedling containers or potted plants, and a tent-like cover to help regulate humidity. It is accompanied by a starter kit containing pots, fertilizer, labels, watering can, potting mix, insecticidal soap, and seeds. Supporting printed and video curriculum materials, and follow up newsletters provide helpful information.
Initially, Carl experimented with various activities that focused on plant science with an older GrowLab model. Students learned about soil, photosynthesis, and other concepts by planting seeds and raising seedlings. They learned about organic material by recycling dead plant debris into compost. They learned and practiced skills of observation, measuring, calculation, and charting data. Carl reports that one of the surprises that they encountered was the degree of variation within a population of seedlings–even though they were all treated exactly the same. This spurred some interest in plant genetics among the students.
The early projects Carl designed involved establishing trial groups and control groups to test how different watering, light and/or feeding regimens affected plant growth. He abandoned that approach when it became obvious that the kids were deeply disappointed that some plants invariably failed to thrive. He realized that, “They all wanted the best outcome.” In light of the fact that his kids “even had a tough time thinning seedlings,” he developed projects that assured, barring the occasional disaster, a uniform result for each participant. Carl reports that, “All of the kids are so enthusiastic, especially the special needs ones.”
In the Classroom
By the time he received a brand new GrowLab courtesy of his Cambridge-Pacific Company sponsor three years ago, Carl Flint had found that the best way to use it was as a “sidebar” to his regular curriculum over an entire semester. Because it takes so long for plants to go from seed to maturity, class GrowLab activities parallel typical shorter science units. Through the GrowLab Carl can introduce and reinforce science skills and concepts as well as teach the plant-related things. Typically, once a project is launched, teacher and students devote, on average, about one hour a week to record keeping, observation, and plant maintenance. Combined, the old and new GrowLabs do not quite accommodate a plant for each of his 50 students, especially when seedlings go from their small cells into larger 4 inch plastic pots. However, all students are able to enjoy up close and personal experiences with them as they grow.
Last fall the sunflower project was a big success. Carl’s students planted dwarf sunflowers, which both he and they thought were “so cool.” At 18 inches maximum height these plants were ideal for the GrowLab. Because instead of the 70 to 75 days to maturity listed on the seed packet, their plants required 90 to 110 days. Upwards of 80% of them developed beautifully and the students proudly took them home to their parents for Christmas.
Teachers who use GrowLabs report that they have an impact well beyond the particular classrooms where they are located. The parents of Carl Flint’s students were delighted to receive the cheery sunflowers. The plants were tangible evidence that their children were loving learning and succeeding. Because the GrowLab in Carl’s room is visible to passers by, the other teachers at Cambridge Central School enjoy watching the ongoing developments under the lights. He receives many compliments from his colleagues. The school custodian is one of the GrowLab’s biggest fans. He looks after the plants, watering faithfully over extended vacation periods.
Carl and his students have gained respect for how difficult it is to raise healthy plants, even under the best conditions. He feels that the biggest insight his students have gained is “how different each plant is and how quickly things happen. How growth happens in spurts, then slows. They are impressed with how vegetative growth differs from reproductive growth.” In addition to knowledge about plants and how they grow, the kids have had to develop troubleshooting skills and the ability to handle disappointment.
Participating teachers can draw on resources such as the printed materials that accompany the GrowLab and representatives from their sponsoring company who are available for donated supplies, visits to the classroom and other support. Carl reports that, “A ton of information comes with the GrowLab…the support is excellent.” From his experiences to date he advises other teachers to have fun. He suggests that they do not do anything fancy at first–“start with no-brainers, then try the more complex stuff later.” Since nothing succeeds like success, aim for positive results rather than sophisticated experiments. He encourages teachers to reach out to their corporate partners for support.
At this point Carl is experienced and confident enough that he is thinking about how to move on to more advanced activities. He plans to build on a former successful basil growing project by adding a marketing component. Students will grow the herb and then sell it. He is also considering introducing activities such as grafting and hybridizing to his 5th graders. The possibilities are endless.
We credit Liz Ball as author of this article