New Brunswick

Middle school students who really don't want a snow day

A classroom at Hillcrest School in Moncton is now home to a hydroponic garden, with 72 heads of lettuce ready to be harvested and sold to help the hungry.

Attendance is up at Moncton's Hillcrest School, thanks to a class project building a hydroponic lettuce garden

A few of the Hillcrest gardeners, including, from left, teacher Marc Merhebi, and students Connor Campbell, Aidyn Bulmer and Cameron LeBlanc. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Every time he walks into the classroom that is now home to a hydroponic garden, with 72 heads of lettuce, middle school teacher Marc Merhebi is "full-on flabbergasted."

The classroom at Hillcrest School in Moncton has been transformed by his science students and is now dominated by the bright green lettuce that glows under the lights.

But now I'm like OK, I want to start getting ready, I want to go to school and I want to check out how the lettuce is doing.- Grade 7 student Cameron LeBlanc

"I love it, they love it — students have said that they're excited to come to science class because of this, so it's been really, really great," Merhebi said.

"Even some attendance has gone up since this started."

Grade 7 student Cameron LeBlanc admits that before his class started the lettuce garden, he would take his time getting ready for school in the morning.

"But now I'm, like, OK, I want to start getting ready, I want to go to school and I want to check out how the lettuce is doing."

'It's better than textbooks'

The idea for a hydroponic lettuce garden was sparked by a class discussion about poverty in Canada, Merhebi said.

"And then I said, 'Well is there maybe hunger in our community? Do we know anything about that?' And that's when a student said, 'Why don't we make a garden.'"

Aidyn, a Grade 7 student at the Moncton school, fills the reservoir for the hydroponic lettuce her class is growing. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Grade 8 student Connor Campbell said figuring out how to build a garden using a couple of hydroponic flood tables, a pump and some Styrofoam was a challenge, but since the project started he wakes up every morning hoping there won't be a snow day.

"This is more of a student project, and it gets us really engaged and hands-on with this big project and this could affect people, which is especially really cool," Connor said.

"Last year we did textbook [learning] and this year — this is nowhere near being textbook … we're still following the guidelines but we're doing it in our own cool, different way."

Grade 7 student Aidyn Bulmer said when the project started she didn't think it would be possible to grow lettuce inside.

"It's better than textbooks because text books are really long and boring and hard."

Students amazed

Cameron, who tried a leaf of the sweet Salanova lettuce earlier this week, said it tastes "fresher than you would buy it in a store."

Cameron, also in Grade 7, shown here testing the nutrients in the water, said he was amazed at how good the lettuce tastes. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

The class has decided to sell the lettuce to parents at the school for $3 per head, with all of the profits going to a local charity.

"They calculated how much electricity cost, so how much each head of lettuce actually cost," Merhebi said.

"It's just been crazy to think we're going to help people with this," Cameron said. "And like Mr. Merhebi said — it's just coming out of water and it's just amazing that we did this."

Excitement grows along with lettuce

Mehrebi believes that student-led projects like the lettuce garden are the way of the future for education.

"They're learning in so many different ways … like in math we're talking about volume, we're talking about ratios, so we're talking about our nutrients," he said.

"I have one student who took a micro bit and coded a little program that we can put a sensor in the water and it measures the pH of the water."

Merhebi said he is already thinking of how the garden could expand next year to include peppers and tomatoes.

In the meantime, he is guiding his excited students as they organize who will be responsible for what and continue to grow and now sell their lettuce.

Grade 8 student Connor, who is part of the lettuce marketing team, showed off a notice that was sent home with families to let them know a head of lettuce can be purchased for $3. All of the money raised will go to a local charity. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

"So they say. 'OK, I want to be part of the marketing team, or I want to be part of a development team or I want to be part of a harvesting team,' and it wasn't dictated by me," Merhebi said.

"It's really been great and selfishly I feel like this has made my job easier. It's a lot easier to teach when students are self-motivated. So really pleased, really proud of my students — they've shown me that even if you don't  know — just start."