In St. Louis, February scents from the soil are already teasing us with thoughts of spring planting. This March, for the first time, we’ll be inviting students in our Alliance schools to try out something new: cold-frame growing in our new Terrace Garden along I-44:
In the five years we’ve been doing hands-on science education in the Shaw Neighborhood, we’ve learned a big lesson: it takes a lot of time and money to build apparatus for one-off demonstrations and experiments. To make what we’re developing sharable with other groups around the city and beyond, we need to cut the overhead, creating the simplest, most affordable and easy-to-build apparatus possible. Discovery stations that invite lots of activities and experiments have become our passion (see August 2022 Newsletter on Computerized Growing Chambers).
This spring, the Curriculum Committee is working on an outdoor discovery station: an inexpensive all-weather, easily assembled and stored growing frame. What we’re after is a way to teach a range of STEAM subjects around an interesting object. And boy, is a growing frame interesting.
We’re thinking first about the E and M in STEAM (Engineering and Math), which can be challenging to explore with kids in grades 4-6. Using safe hand tools, various lengths of wooden 2X2s, clear-plastic sheeting, and a few other items from a home-improvement store, how can we open up possibilities for educational play? Here is a sampling of kid-sized questions about a cold-frame:
How big should we make it so that it won’t blow away or be crushed by snow or a downpour?
How can we join the 2X2s and not have the giant frame be floppy?
What do we do with the clumsy thing when spring is over?
Can we figure out easy ways to fold or disassemble it for winter storage?
How can we provide water for the plants inside if our garden doesn’t have a spigot?
Getting kids interested in such problems is easy, but finding answers without clues can be beyond them. We’re thinking of prefabricating angle-supports and of 2X2s with holes for bolts and screws at the corners.
With these, 4th-graders, for example, might try out for themselves ways to assemble the frame and keep it from flopping. 6th-graders might research the average angle of incidence of the sun in St. Louis from March to May, and if we provide various lengths of 2×2 for uprights, 5th-graders might use a protractor to look for an optimal angle for the top.
If all goes well, we then have formed an engineering and design team. Add some PVC pipe, guttering, and fittings to our parts list, and the team might try to find sustainable ways to harvest water from the sheeting on top. Add a dowel sticking up from board on a post at the rear, and they might assemble a sundial and take readings on the changing angle of the sun throughout the spring growing season. Add a small solar-powered camera, and they might even make time-lapse videos of the shortening shadow and the lengthening plants.
Once the engineering is done, just think of all the exploring and experimenting with science and math the team can do involving the cold-frame they’ve made.
For example, how does it capture heat? How much does temperature inside fall overnight? How much faster do plants grow with the increasing angle of the sun? How can we prevent overheating? How much rainwater can we collect from 4’2″ of plastic film/hour in a .5-inch/hour rainstorm? What plants grow best in cold-frames? Could we change out the plastic for another fabric in summer to protect plants from sunburn or insects?
So we’re off—with Frank Lorberbaum of Building Futures, a non-profit devoted to teaching design and woodcraft—to fashion parts and clues to let kids assemble a year-round, team-friendly discovery station made out of a few lengths of wood, fabric, guttering, and plastic pipe—one that can hold interest as they advance in age, capacity, manual and social skills, and creativity. How about challenging 8th-graders to invent a robotic device to open vents when the inside temperature goes over 35 degrees Celsius?