Hydroponics Club Grows Food For Those In Need, Teaches Methods to Local Kids

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil, using nutrient-enriched water. “It’s the farming of the future,” said Pitt Hydroponics club president Luke Persin. Among the advantages is that plants grow faster and produce better yields, without… read more

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil, using nutrient-enriched water. “It’s the farming of the future,” said Pitt Hydroponics club president Luke Persin. Among the advantages is that plants grow faster and produce better yields, without the need for pesticides or herbicides. “Hydroponics uses 90% less water than traditional methods, and there’s no end to the growing season,” he said.

The club has close ties to the Swanson School of Engineering, but students come from a variety of majors, said Persin, who is a senior majoring in biological sciences. Student members gain hands-on experience in designing and building hydroponic growing systems, but the club’s purpose extends far beyond its own four walls.

The greens they grow take four to five weeks to mature, and at full production, 99 heads of lettuce could be harvested each week, Persin estimated. The produce is grown to help feed neighbors in need, including through the Pitt Pantry, which serves students.

Club members also share their knowledge and passion. A big part of their mission is to reach out—in the community, in schools and across campus—to inspire others to make their own hydroponic growing systems.

Hydroponic gardening can be as simple as modifying a water bottle to hold growing medium and seedlings. The club regularly offers hands-on “build a mini system” nights to teach other students how to grow their own lettuce or basil without soil—even on a dorm room windowsill. Members also are exploring the potential for installing systems in prominent spots on campus, to raise awareness as well as produce.

In addition to their Homewood location, club members maintain a hydroponic system at the nearby nonprofit Community Human Services. It provides fresh lettuce for the CHS food pantry, which serves more than 800 families in Pittsburgh’s South Oakland neighborhood.

The students also are partnering with The Community Day School in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, which serves students age 3 through grade 8. Club members have visited to teach the students about hydroponics, and, with students in grades 6 through 8, have helped design and build a system that can be moved among classrooms at the school. They expect to complete the project in January 2020.

Tracing the roots

The club got its official start in the 2015-16 academic year, but hydroponics projects on the Pitt campus aren’t new. The first was envisioned by Justin Tomko (ENGR ’12), now a graduate student in mechanical engineering, who undertook a project to explore how hydroponics could help meet basic food needs in Haiti, said faculty member David Sanchez of the Swanson School of Engineering’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Hydroponics systems projects, some aimed at meeting local needs in urban “food deserts,” where access to affordable fresh, healthful foods is lacking, continued under Pitt’s chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World before this current club launched to focus specifically on hydroponics.“Hydroponics has a lot of potential to fit into a portfolio of methods to meet food needs of the future in a more sustainable way,” he said.

Support for Pitt Hydroponics has come primarily from the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation, where Sanchez is the assistant director for education and community engagement. Sanchez also directs Pitt’s undergraduate certificate in sustainability program and the Swanson school’s master of science in sustainability engineering program. His research in sustainable design labs supports additional projects that foster cross-pollination of sustainable ideas.

The goal of the sustainable design labs is to undertake projects that will have impact. In the same vein, the club’s projects all must deepen student engagement and education, Sanchez said.

“We emphasize that a sustainable design starts with understanding the challenge through other’s perspectives,” said Sanchez.  “We are building a culture around how you use engineering to serve people.”