Hydroponics in Biology Class- What I Learned

I recently conclImageuded a big project in my Honors Biology and Biology classes in which student researched, designed, built and shared hydroponics systems or Vertical Gardens in our school’s greenhouse and garden. This was a risky venture in many ways because I was turning my back on so much of what is expected in Biology class.  For one thing, this project took the place of all scheduled lab time.  My school’s schedule is such that I meet with my students 50 minutes each day (more or less…we actually have a rotating schedule) to go over content and 80 minutes each week to apply that content to a laboratory investigation. It is a system I have worked in and with for nearly two decades.  Turning my back on that was scary as a teacher, but it was also invigorating. We are basically done with the project (although some of the sharing has yet to be done), so it seems like a good time to reflect on what I learned from doing this.

I Like Inquiry Learning, Blended Learning and Learning Cycles
Really, all of this was possible because I have been questioning my teaching style for years now. As a traditional, “stand and deliver” teacher, the idea of NOT doing labs in lab was inconceivable. I believe that students need to experience Science to fully embrace what Science actually is.  Biology is far more than a collection of facts about living organisms.  It is a process of knowing living organisms and systems.  It is questioning, exploring, evaluating and re-questioning. The hands-on experiences are essential. So, dropping labs can’t be done in my classroom of 5 years ago (that’s really the last time I was a lecture-based teacher). By incorporating learning cycles that were based on inquiry investigations and utilizing online lectures and reading, I have reorganized how my students learn. Investigations are part of every learning cycle and set that stage for what that cycle is about.  It engages the student and creates the context for the facts that are to follow. Because investigations are regularly done in class, utilizing the “lab” time became a realistic possibility. (Not to mention that using online lectures freed class time for doing investigations.)

I Really Like Seeing My Students Engaged
This wasn’t a perfect process and did not cause a magical transformation in every student. However, I saw a light in the eyes of many students that I had not seen all year. One student in particular stands out in my mind.  This is the smart, but unmotivated student.  The one who sits in class passively and has mediocre grades because he just doesn’t care that much. Once we got outside and got tools in our hands, he was a leader and was basically running the show.  He had ideas that he brought to life and ideas that didn’t pan out. The light in his eyes is something I won’t forget anytime soon.

I Like Seeing Strong Students Struggle
My honors students get school.  They are bright, hardworking people that are used to getting from point A to point B using skills they have honed over years of schooling.  They are really good at making connections and critically examining different issues. What they aren’t good at is building a simple A-Frame structure to hold up a hydroponics system.  Neither am I.  In theory, we were simply applying basic Geometry to figure out what angles the 2×4’s needed to come together in a way that would allow the structure to stand.  We were all so stymied by this that we went with 90 degree angles that were both ugly and non-functional. It was both frustrating and exciting.  These students got a real-life lesson in the fact that it can be tough to bring theoretical idea into real life.  They also learned to adapt.  We went with one leaning system and laid the other on a table.  Sometimes it’s the simple ideas that are the best.

I Don’t Like Working Alone
I had many struggle with these projects.  They ranged from the simple construction problems described above to design problems to a host of other little issues that drove me crazy.  Here’s the thing- people who knew how to deal with these issues were all over the campus around me.  I could hear our carpentry expert working on the building next door as we struggle to put two 2×4’s together.  I was working outside the Math wing of the building where teachers may have been able to turn our problems into real life solvable word problems. All around me were people that could have been stepped in and taught my students skills and concepts that we were struggling with. One of my biggest goals lately has been to coordinate learning with others.  Whether it’s developing a school Science curriculum, sharing ideas on homework or building a silly A-Frame, I want to work with colleagues.  I am tired of being alone in my classroom doing my best to figure it out on my own.  I want this to change.  After all, there is a “me” in “Team.”

I Still Struggle with the Role of Content
I learned Biology content in High School.  I can still remember getting accolades from Mr. Powell for writing “sinoatrial node” on a quiz rather than the accepted “pacemaker.” That helped set the stage for me heading into Biology.  I was good at Biology and that’s where I went.  But what I was really good at was remembering stuff. I could just as easily have gone into the field of Movie Quotes or 80’s Song Lyrics. I wasn’t until I was teaching that I really became good at Biology. I began to see connections between the facts that I never noticed before. Ideas sprang up in my head.  I then taught Chemistry and I gained new insight into both Science and Biology. Once I had ready access to the “facts,” to cool stuff really came together. I would not have the appreciation or understanding of Biological Science that I have now without the facts.  But I also never had the easy access to them that my students do. If I teach like Mr. Powell did, and I do from time to time, am I making myself irrelevant? Why do these kids need me to explain that the stomach produces pepsin and HCl when Paul Anderson does it so well?  Can’t we start with bigger questions and go to the “fact sources” when we need to fill in what’s missing? Then again, if I had to look up every fact along the way, would I have ever gained the understanding that I ultimately developed? Honestly, I don’t really know, but hopefully the “I Don’t Like Working Alone” part of this post will help me develop an answer.

So, that’s (some of) what I learned.  There was other stuff like Home Depot is really good about returns, PVC pipe is easy to work with, but hard to drill big holes in and groundhogs eat plants left unguarded and too close to the ground.  I also learned that I want to continue in this direction.  Engaging students in different types of projects and exciting ways of learning.  I hope to gain more focus in my approach, but that’s really just the same kind of adjusting we did throughout the project. Live and Learn.