Marshalltown Learning Academy introduces hydroponic farming curriculum

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE MARSHALLTOWN LEARNING ACADEMY — One of the first harvested batches of romaine lettuce produced by the Marshalltown Learning Academy’s new hydroponic farming initiative.

While the encroaching spring season often brings about a flurry of activity in the agricultural sector after the slow, frosty winter months, students and staff at the Marshalltown Learning Academy (MLA) have already been hard at work over the past several months growing their own fresh produce locally.

The school has recently launched a hydroponic farming initiative focused around giving students opportunities to become involved in growing sustainable, natural foods as part of the curriculum.

Hydroponic farming is a type of horticulture which involves growing plants, usually crops or medicinal plants, without soil, by using water-based mineral nutrient solutions in fluid solvents. The agricultural technique has become popular in more urban areas without large plots of suitable growing land and in colder climates with shorter growing seasons. It uses significantly less water than traditional methods, oftentimes up to 90% less, and requires minimal manual labor while providing faster-growing, higher-yielding plant produce.

As MLA Principal Eric Goslinga says, the new curriculum is part of the school’s efforts to give students more direct instruction on tangible subjects independent from the typical school environment.

“We have been, as a building, making a very, very conscious effort to move more into what’s called in our business authentic learning,” Goslinga said. “We’re trying to do more and more of that stuff, make it more hands-on, more real world, or transferable to a context outside of school especially (for) kids who might struggle with motivation, or seeing the connections to what’s going on with learning.”

Students are able to plant seeds into the hydroponic apparatus then monitor various essential nutrient levels throughout the 28-day growing cycle. The school has already grown and harvested several varieties of lettuce and assorted spices in the early days of the hydroponic program.

Alongside the actual growing of the plants, students work their way through supplemental courses ranging from the cellular processes of how the plants grow, to food supply chains, and even food safety.

“They see the whole process of how we go from farm to table or how the agriculture industry works,” MLA science teacher Kevin Kenealy said. “One of the projects is to break down what their favorite meal is. They look at all the food that they get in that meal, and then they look at where it comes from.”

He says the program helps students to realize how immediate some of the food they eat is, and at an extension, how attainable a career in agriculture can be.

“Getting them to think, ‘Oh, wait, that’s a lot closer to home than I thought,’ and what are all the steps in that process. So, that’s one of the things they look at and it opens their eyes a little bit,”

Kenealy said. “Realizing you go five miles that way, and you’re in a field, no matter which direction you go from here, and the industry is all around us.”

Kenealy says he hopes to eventually see students take their lessons learned from the hydroponic farming course and bring those skills and interests into a future career.

“Whether that would be something like a student taking this and then maybe going and touring a greenhouse and then maybe finding either a job or maybe an internship or something like that there — just seeing that growth in that position available for them after high school,” Kenealy said.

For Goslinga, he says he anticipates the school leaning more into these types of educational opportunities in the future for students at MLA.

“I see the school doing more things like this but in different subject areas,” Goslinga said. “Teaching kids authentic skills… being more involved in the broader community and helping people find their passion. So when they leave here, they’ve got something that they feel is important and brings them joy and energy, and hopefully it gets them a skill that will pay them a living wage.”

Particularly for students at MLA, programs like the hydroponic farming course can help reinvigorate their desire to learn crucial knowledge and skills in all areas of life.

“Some of our kids come here and have experienced a lot of prior failure and a lot of challenges and a lot of barriers in school, and so the messages sometimes that they get from people in their life is they’re not capable students,” Goslinga said. “When you can give them different ways to engage, they can often blossom and reach their full potential.”


Contact Nick Baur at (641) 753-6611 or nbaur@timesrepublican.com.


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