A middle school farm team is automating agriculture

Take me to your seeder: Behold, the FarmBot, an agricultural automaton that can plant, till, water, take pictures, check soil conditions and more, built and programmed by the young geniuses at Melville's West Hollow Middle School.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

Meanwhile, back on the farm, the future was evolving.

The farm, in this case, is inside West Hollow Middle School, a forward-looking jewel of the Half Hollow Hills Central School District. And the future comes in the form of FarmBot, a kid-crafted, kid-coded automaton that could help feed future generations on this increasingly crowded planet – and even astronauts exploring distant worlds.

The robot, of course, tills its land on a relatively small scale: FarmBot measures 9 feet by 14 feet, an impressive achievement for middle-schoolers, if not quite ready to solve a global food crisis.

But as a blueprint for creative and sustainable agricultural innovations – a veritable must, with 7.5 billion hungry humans already seated and 3 billion additional dinner guests expected by the end of the century – FarmBot truly shines.

Described as “an open-source farming robot,” the mechanism slides on vertical and horizontal axes, carrying a camera, a small rake, a grasping tool and even soil-quality sensors that know when it’s time to make it rain, all designed and installed by ambitious sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders (school maintenance professionals plugged in the electricity and water lines).

FarmBot knows what to do, and when, because of coding. “Kids who are interested in engineering” volunteered their time to build it, according to Half Hollow Hills CSD Public Relations Director Charles Parker, and now “different kids with interests in coding” are working on the programming side.

“Students came during their lunch periods and after school to build it,” Parker told Innovate LI. “And now students who are interested in coding are spending their time off in the school day to come work on it.

“These students are really doing phenomenal stuff.”

Part child, part machine, all farmer: West Hollow Middle School students help FarmBot work the land.

While the obvious goal is to automate the indoor growing process – interesting to overstuffed urban centers, future populations crowded into arctic regions and possibly space colonies – there are bigger themes at play.

Not only do students strengthen those increasingly important STEAM skills (for science, technology, engineering, art and math), they gain a wider understanding of alternative agricultural practices – also a priority, as farming environments shift, in many cases for the worse.

The effort even has a heart of gold: Hauppauge-based hunger-relief organization Island Harvest has donated seeds to the FarmBot project and will gather the fruits of the robo-labor for distribution to regional food-insecure families (other FarmBot produce will be used by the middle school’s Family and Consumer Science teaching staffs).

It’s a healthy crop of cross-disciplinary goodness, packed into a truly innovative 21st century educational effort, according to West Hollow Middle School science teacher Christopher Regini.

Life on MarsFarm: The crispy green fruits of hydroponic labor.

“The goal is to combine computational thinking, data collection and analysis, electronics and prototyping, and general good science practices to better understand plants, food production and the resources needed to reduce food insecurity,” Regini noted.

FarmBot, which was constructed and programmed this school year, follows in the virtual footsteps of another West Hollow Middle School future-farming foray: the MarsFarm, an indoor hydroponics farm already in its second year of operation.

Incorporating cutting-edge sensor technology into its soil-less system, MarsFarm allows students to remotely control systems and analyze data; via the education-focused Flipgrid videoconferencing network, they share their agricultural experiences with students in Acapulco and China, among other places.

Together, the STEAM-powered middle school farms are already producing healthy crops of cabbage, bok choy, bell peppers, basil and other herbs and vegetables, and there’s more on the way. Expect the tech to grow, too – according to the school, students are eager to begin 3D printing new tools for their prototype FarmBot system.

Regini – who noted the MarsFarm data is shared with Princeton University researchers and Growing Beyond Earth, a partnership between NASA and Florida’s Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden – said the forward-thinking farming efforts are a critical tool for familiarizing young learners with science, art and engineering.

“The goal is to apply STEAM education in a way that is meaningful, allowing us to focus on topics already within the science curriculum,” the science teacher added, “while engaging students in a practice that equips them with the 21st century skills that make them future-ready.”


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