Summer Learning Academy: Project-Based Learning at DMS

Written by: Hannah Song and Emma Wienand
Rising Sixth Grade Students at Dorseyville Middle School

A visitor to Dorseyville Middle School this summer witnessed a different kind of learning: students covered in dirt and armed with saws and pickaxes, PVC pipe and wheelbarrows, designs and models, cameras and tripods, pumps and computers. Students communicated ideas and debated processes for solving the real-world problems in front of them. Their common goal was to design and create a permanent, self-sustaining aquaponics growing system for the school community to enjoy and interact with for years to come.

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants in a water-based, nutrient-rich solution. Hydroponics does not use soil. Instead, the root system is supported in a medium of perlite, rockwool, clay pellets, peat moss, and even PVC tubes or some vermiculite. When the water-based nutrient solution passes through the medium, the plant roots are fertilized and have direct access to oxygen, which is essential for proper plant growth.

Digging the second pond deeperAquaponics is the combination of aquaculture (raising fish in a controlled water environment) and hydroponics (growing plants in water and without soil). To build this integrated system, students are digging two ponds that will be permanent additions to DMS. One will hold tilapia and the other koi. The fish will produce waste that provides organic food for the growing plants. The waste-water from the ponds will be pumped into the greenhouse to feed the plants. After the plants naturally filter the water, it will be pumped back out to the ponds for another cycle. The greenhouse will also be a usable, permanent addition to DMS. Dorseyville Middle School students will update it during the school year as an added component to their curriculum.

Between pickaxing holes, unloading trailers, carrying heavy stones, and building the foundation of the greenhouse, everyone worked very hard for the benefit of the school and are proud of the work they put into it. The students were excited about this project and learned from the process.

“Communicating with others is one of the main keys of being successful in this project,” said Alayna Warneke who will be a seventh grader this fall.

They also discovered their own hidden talents and admired each other’s hard work. In no time at all, conversations changed from “What’s that?” to “I’ll do it!”
In order to complete this large-scale project, the 48 students were divided into working groups: the builders, the farmers, the media team, and the site planners.

The builders spent most of their time working outside, plotting and digging holes for the pond, arranging a pond wall, and putting together PVC pipes and a wooden base for the greenhouse. “It was fun working with other people to create something that will outlast our time here at DMS,” said Matt Sheeler, a member of the build team who will be entering eighth grade.

The farmers researched various types of plants and fish, such as tilapia and koi, that can thrive in the hydroponics greenhouse environment. They designed a presentation to educate the other students and teachers about what they learned and also designed and built hydroponic plant holders.

The media team took and edited pictures and videos. They put together a slideshow of each group’s progress and the overall process of the project (and wrote this article!)
The site planners repurposed barrels from a local carwash and turned them into decorative rain barrels with different themes. One theme consists of triangle shapes encircling the barrel. They are different shades of blue with fish in the middle. “Once I take the tape off, it will be like fish swimming in individual ponds,” said the creator, Natalia Maciak, who will enter eighth grade this fall. The rain barrels will collect the rain from the roof of the greenhouse. The rain collected will be used to replenish evaporated pond water.

As everyone worked, you could hear the shovels clanging, the fan running, and everyone sharing their ideas. Even on humid days, the students still went outside, got dirty, drank iced tea, and regrouped in the shade. The project progressed very quickly because everyone was contributing their best and working hard. Only having had about three weeks to finish the huge project, it's hard to believe how far they got.

Of course, none of this would be possible without the brains of educational technology teacher Mr. Joe Eisel. “We have a pond, we have a greenhouse, but we don’t have a greenhouse and pond that interact with each other. This was an opportunity for us to create a sustainable, closed-loop ecosystem. Without a doubt, I think it’s going to be a success!”
Who knows – one day your own child may be interacting with the greenhouse and ponds!

The Process
Week 1:
The students were introduced to the project. They brainstormed how they could build a self-sustaining hydroponics system. They independently researched examples of working greenhouse and pond systems. In groups, students designed different prototypes on paper and built 3D scaled renderings out of PVC pipe and plastic coverings. Through trial and error, groups collaborated to solve problems with their models: dimensions, angles, connecting doors to the greenhouse, and covering it with plastic to the exact fit. They created model hydroponic systems using buckets, hoses, and pumps. Students dug holes to experiment with various pond liners.

Week 2:
The students resolved problems that they found in their prototypes. Then groups came together to discuss the pros and cons of each model. In a gallery crawl, students wrote the pros and cons on a flipchart paper hung above each group’s prototype. Students combined their successful ideas to design a final prototype for the project.
The builders measured the land for the greenhouse and started to dig the pond. They also prepared the ground for the greenhouse. They quickly discovered how hard the soil was, but that did not discourage them.

The farmers researched types of plants, soil, and fish to be used, and created a presentation to suggest their ideas to the larger group. Finding the right plants and aquatic creatures was an important step in the project.

The site planners designed patterns for and primed and painted rain barrels. They used wire mesh, concrete, and colored tiles to create stepping stones.
The media group set up a time-lapse everyday to show the progress made from the start. They also took pictures and videos to document the progress, and interviewed students and teachers. They wrote an article about the project to educate others about the venture.

Week 3:
Students started to build the walls of the greenhouse. They laid stones for the pond, and kept digging the hard soil. Students even went into the Blue Run Trail to pick up large stones to hold down the pond liner. Even though the holes for the pond got muddy over the weekend, everyone persevered and got themselves dirty. The builders built the greenhouse wall out of PVC pipe, dug a space for the pond wall, and arranged the stones for the pond.

The farmers gave a presentation that educated the group about what creatures and plants would suit the structure. Choosing the right plants and fish to buy was an important step in the process.

Week 4:
A wooden base was laid for the greenhouse and PVC pipe walls were erected. The students measured, cut, primed and assembled the wood and PVC. Ponds were dug to the appropriate depth and students carefully measured and leveled stone walls around the pond. A compost tumbler was also designed and created. To build a PVC pipe garden, they used a heater and door stop to melt holes in the PVC for the plants.

Farmers prepared the plants they had researched and chosen for the project. As the students were continuing to dig the pond hole, the teachers were helping by erecting the corrugated PVC panel on the roof of the greenhouse.

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