New hydroponics project lets students learn as crops grow

GILLETTE — The Adventurarium in Gillette is growing plants and feeding many of its animals through a new hydroponics room.

The Campbell County School District’s science center is open throughout the school year for Family Science Nights and serves students ranging from pre-school through sixth grade. The new hydroponics room with lights, a top-drip vertical wall system and a floating deep water culture system (now growing tomato plants) are featured in the hydroponics room.

There, Gage Terrell, 17, a senior at Thunder Basin High School, tests the systems for pH levels, harvests the lettuce and herbs growing in the top-drip system and helps science center director Jodi Crago-Wyllie keep up with the planting, harvesting and production from the hydroponics.

It’s Terrell’s second year as a mentor student at the science center. Each morning he feeds the plants and checks their pH levels. He’s become a right-hand man for Crago-Wyllie, who also serves as the elementary level science facilitator for the district.

It is an affordable hydroponics system that uses PVC pipe, painted used aquariums and similar inexpensive parts that grow plants year-round.

The science center staff, including Crago-Wyllie and Terrell, are learning as they grow.

“You really have to be on top of it,” Crago-Wyllie said. “It’s kind of like a pet.”

Everything in the room is grown without soil, she said. Material to start the seedlings is similar to carpet or compost material. Those are then planted in the vertical wall.

“We don’t bring in any plants with soil on the roots,” Crago-Wyllie said, adding that soil can transfer diseases or bugs.

Each week, Terrell and Crago-Wyllie harvest the lettuce and herbs and replant. The system uses overhead lights that can be raised or lowered with another track of lights aimed at the wall system, which can be moved closer or further away from the plants as needed.

That’s where they are continuing some experimentation, along with growing herbs ranging from oregano to parsley. Crago-Wyllie said she hopes to plant some peppers in the deep water system once she has harvested the tomatoes, which are showing dramatic growth each week.

She’ll also have to see how to add stakes to help support the tomato plants, she said.

“It’s become such a big thing now,” Crago-Wyllie said of hydroponics. “So many kids don’t know where their food comes from.”

The hydroponics room is a way to show them. There are three types of lettuce being grown in the eight vertical rows of plants in the top drip system. The room is kept at between 70 to 81 degrees and a fan helps circulate air.

“It’s cool,” Terrell said. “You can see how food is grown and we can feed it to the animals who eat it.” (Terrell’s) parents don’t garden, but his grandmother does. And he’d like to show her how this hydroponics room works.

Terrell’s favorite? The tomatoes, he said. “I like these because you can see them grow every day.”

The plants doubled in growth over the past three-day weekend. It won’t be long before he is raising the lights or adding stakes to the aquariums and lightweight, floating rocks (similar to lava).

“I think it’s something we can do in my house,” Terrell said about building his own hydroponic garden.

Among the herbs growing at the science center is cilantro, he said, adding that “hopefully we can make some salsa.”

It is a class Terrell said he loves.

“It’s cool to do different things. I do something different every day,” he said. “I like it in here. It’s like a science experiment.”

Terrell remembers coming to the science center and Adventurarium as a younger student in Campbell County.

“I thought of it as a museum of sorts. If I’d known, I’d have come every day,” he said of the Adventurarium, which each elementary school class visits at least once a year.

The class works well with what he hopes to do in the future. “I thought about being a teacher. A science teacher would be fun,” he said.

He plans to start at Gillette College, attend two years there, then move on to the University of Wyoming. 

He repainted the aquariums black to start the deep water culture system. The air pumps from those former fish tanks are very responsive, Crago-Wyllie said.

The baskets they found to hold the rocks and the tomato plants fit perfectly and cost about $10, she said. Overall, the two systems in the room cost about $1,500 and will grow plants year-round.

A daily dose of nutrients helps the plants grow better and faster under the lights, she said. If the plants are less acidic, they absorb more nutrients, which means quicker growth.

“It sounds easy, but you have to keep up with it,” Crago-Wyllie said. “It’s so fun and so much different than I imagined.”

Terrell grows the lettuce to feed the animals in the science center, including his favorite, Cedric, a parrot. He also will sing to the animals when he feeds them.

“Cedric loves him. He loves Gage and he doesn’t love anyone,” Crago-Wyllie said of the formerly abused parrot.

The idea of building a hydroponic garden came to Crago-Wyllie a year ago. Now both she and Terrell are learning as they go.

“Yeah, I still don’t really know how that works,” Terrell said.

“You have to be a bit of everything,” Crago-Wyllie said. “A chemist ... and more, not just a gardener.”

With that, she and Terrell added a new row of lettuce to try Tuesday, including Caesar, Simpson and butter crunch.


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