Wheeling Jesuit University

University Students Working for ‘Food Justice’

WJU Program Teaches Hydroponic Vegetable Growing

By JOSELYN KING Staff Writer , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

WHEELING - Wheeling Jesuit University students are growing vegetables indoors without the need for soil or excessive amounts of water - then they are eating what they sow.

The students are conducting hydroponics projects and growing lettuce in a lab located on the ground floor of the Robert C. Byrd National Technology Transfer Center building on the WJU campus.

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants indoors year-round, not in soil but in mineral nutrient fertilizer solutions mixed with water. The technique utilizes 20 percent less water than traditional planting practices, according to Laurie P. Ruberg of Plants LLC, a former educator at WJU who returns to the college regularly to work with students on the project.

She said research into hydroponics is becoming more common as scientists seek to address the growing need of producing food year-round while also being responsive to water needs in many areas.

The WJU students are participating in a "food justice" class at the university. The term encompasses the issues of food security, food distribution, equal access to healthy food, care by food workers, and food sustainability.

The hydroponics work first started at WJU about a year ago when Plants LLC was granted $5,000 in seed money from TechConnectWV to begin the project, and WJU provided an additional $5,000 in matching funds.

The research began in January, when students planted vegetable seeds into a substance called rockwool, a man-made mineral fiber often used in home insulation. After about three weeks, the lettuce seeds sprouted, and the plants were removed from their trays and placed into slots on a structure called a nutrient film technique table.

A container of nutrient solution sits below the table, and the liquid gets sucked up and flows through plastic channels within the table. The liquid permeated the roots of the plants, allowing them to grow without a solid planting media. After another three weeks - about six weeks after their planting - students were able to harvest and eat the lettuce.

They evaluated its color, density and taste of the lettuce, and sought to determine whether the plants grown under fluorescent lights grew better than those placed under LED bulbs.

Those receiving LED lighting were a different color, were tougher in texture and tasted more bitter than those nourished by fluorescent light, they found.

This semester the students will be evaluating a new crop of lettuce and determining the effect individual minerals have on their growth.

Lettuce is the plant of choice for the research because it grows more quickly, according to Ruberg. Zuchini, spinach and strawberries also have been planted and researched by the students.

Tess Sheppard, a senior WJU chemistry major from Morristown, said students physically come to the lab at least twice a week to make sure the vegetable plants are watered properly, but they don't have to be in the lab to note growth progress.

The plants are watched by a webcam, which the students can access through their smart phones.

"We have a great time," said Jacob Kenney, a senior environmental sustainability major from Wheeling. "Building the system is interesting. It is not as complicated as it looks.

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