Laurie F. Ruberg
Laurie Ruberg of Wheeling (WV) is the wife of George Ruberg and mother of John Ruberg. Laurie launched PLANTS, LLC in March 2013 to support hydroponics education activities for kindergarten through college level projects. Through PLANTS, Laurie serves as an educational consultant for school, community, and post-secondary research projects. Plants provide many opportunities to engage students and teachers in environmental science, hands-on technology, and community-based learning and improvement activities.
PLANTS, LLC, working in partnership with North Elementary School
Families Grow Hydroponic Salad Greens
Problem: As our population in West Virginia, the United States, and around the globe increases, our children will face the challenge of providing nearly double the amount of food to feed the projected population needs. In addition to the dramatic increased need for food, having access to cost-effective, sustainable, and adaptable water is critical for future agricultural practices. Hydroponics can provide a simple solution to address both the food and water needs because hydroponics uses less than 10 percent of the amount of water to grow food crops and provides a way for small farmers and even urban communities and families to grow garden vegetables in adaptable, portable systems. Another challenge this project addresses is the need to get youth engaged at an early age in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education projects that are practical and applicable to tech-rich careers. Getting families involved in hydroponic projects plants the seeds for biotechnology and innovative agriculture careers and also address the need to foster entrepreneurship and innovation for talented, energetic, and tech-savvy West Virginia youth.
Project Description: The Families Grow Hydroponic Salad Greens project is designed to inspire West Virginia families to have convenient access to salad greens through simple hydroponics systems. This project also provides a meaningful entrepreneurship learning experience where families can create a business plan for their hydroponic growth system and assess the marketability of different salad crops. A one-day workshop kicks off the project with hands-on training and a start-up kit for each attending family. This project expands the existing farm to school program through the use of hydroponics, which offers year-round opportunities for agricultural entrepreneurship.
How the project got started: The Families Grow Hydroponic Salad Greens project started through a partnership between PLANTS, LLC, a small business based in Wheeling (WV) and North Elementary School. PLANTS was founded in 2013 by Laurie Ruberg, based at that time at the Wheeling Jesuit University NASA Classroom of the Future. Ruberg found NASA’s plant-based life support research fascinating and saw this area as a great vehicle for stimulating youth interest in technology-rich, innovative agriculture careers. K-12 schools and families can easily use hydroponic and aquaponic systems to teach plant science and engineering design while growing fresh vegetables and herbs.
5 steps to start this project:
- Identify a core team of teachers and parents interested in growing garden vegetables in a hydroponic system.
- Contact Laurie Ruberg with PLANTS, LLC (or a local hydroponics expert in your area) to plan what crops you will grow and what type of hydroponic or aquaponics system will best suit the space, funding, and crop growth goals. Contact your county WVU Extension agent and any Master Gardener volunteers in your area to help you plan and implement your project.
- Determine the size and scope of the family/youth teams that you will get involved in your start-up hydroponic training and prepare a budget that includes: workshop/training costs, providing a startup kit for each family-team participating, include funding for promotion and training printed materials.
- Identify a date, location, speakers, and facilitators for the start-up workshop. Holding the event at a school and involving teachers interested in incorporating hydroponics in their curriculum will help you identify infrastructure, resources, and supportive people to sustain your project.
- Identify convenient ways to stay in touch with your family teams after the workshop to share successes and challenges as families launch their new systems. Plan a follow-up event where family teams can share their results 10-15 weeks after the startup workshop.
What did you learn? It helps to have someone volunteer to lead the follow-up communications with all the participants. It’s just as important to share your challenges (and even failures) as your successes—maybe even more important. It’s encouraging and helpful to all the participants to see that things can go wrong for even an experienced hydroponic grower. It’s also encouraging for new hydroponics growers to see that many mistakes are easily corrected and don’t result in having to start over. Plants are usually very forgiving, and respond well to corrections made during the growth cycle.
Did you have a “A-Ha or Light Bulb” Moment? Sharing photos is really important. Being able to share images of the setup and plant growth is encouraging and helps keep family teams engaged. Try to keep the tone of the communications brief, friendly, and encouraging. Look for ways to connect participants who have similar challenges, and feature innovative ideas that come from family teams.
What was the biggest challenge and how did you overcome it? For the first few weeks, I was the only one sharing images and data. I didn’t let this get me down. I kept sharing photos, updates, data, and informational tips on a weekly basis. After week 3, I started hearing from several family teams—that was really exciting for me!
What resources, videos, websites helped you put your project/strategy together?
I share additional information on my PLANTS, LLC website: http://www.e-learningtalk.com. Also depending on the information shared each week, I embed web links for additional information. I also set up a Google Drive for team sharing and resource sharing. This resource was available during the startup workshop and throughout the follow-up period.
How have you engaged the following partners in your strategy?
…students? Yes, students are engaged through family participation, Girl Scouts teams, robotics teams, neighborhood teams, and church youth groups.
…teachers and support staff? Yes, having teachers involved is really important. Teachers served as workshop facilitators and were also involved as family team leaders.
…principal/administrators? The principal of North Elementary served as the PI for the grant that helped to fund the startup workshop and follow-up activities. It was important to have this leadership involved for recruiting teachers, having use of the school facility, and coordination with the county school administrators.
…business/labor/community partners? ? The PLANTS, LLC business wrote the grant and provided weekly communications with family teams throughout the project.