Educator Spotlight: What’s a Food Computer?!

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Tracy Polte, this week’s Educator of the Week, blends technological problem solving with natural science education—starting as early as kindergarten. She worked with National Geographic Explorer Caleb Harper to incorporate “food computers” into classrooms. Tracy is the science department chair and STEAM coordinator—and she teaches 1st, 2nd, and 7th grade—at Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Tracy put seedlings in the food computer at the beginning of the semester. Photo by Chris Randall, director of communications at Shady Hill School

A Little Background: Who is Caleb Harper and what is a food computer?
Caleb Harper is an urban agriculturalist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. He created the food computer, which is a “specialized growing chamber” that controls the climate within its walls. Factors such as carbon dioxide levels, air temperature, and humidity can be set to maximize growth for a particular plant—regardless of the climate outside. Caleb hopes that this technology may help reinvent agriculture and solve a range of food production problems. He has shared food computers with a number of schools to encourage out-of-the-box STEAM thinking.

Tracy, what did you think when you heard your school would get to try out a food computer?
Well, when you hear “food computer,” you’re not really sure what that’s going to look like! But it was so exciting because it fit perfectly with our first graders’ curriculum. Our school runs on a central subject model, which means each grade level studies one particular topic across subjects for an entire year. Our first graders were studying a “farm-to-table curriculum, and the food computer fit into that in so many ways.

We grow many things in our on-campus garden throughout the course of the year, and the food computer got students thinking about what people could do if they didn’t have a garden. Also, the students visit the local food pantry each year, and the food computer helped them reflect on how we might feed more people in the future.

How did students react to the food computer?
It was clear as soon as I said “food computer,” that they thought the plants inside would grow in ten minutes. That part was a bit of a learning curve for them!

On the other hand, we talk about photosynthesis and carbon dioxide in class and that was a great starting point. When Caleb was helping orient us to the machine, we realized the numbers representing carbon dioxide were low. One of the students got up on his own and started breathing into the vent on the side of the machine. He knew that he was breathing out carbon dioxide, and we could all see the level climbing as he breathed. It was so exciting for them. After that, everyone wanted to breathe into the computer!


Can you take me through a couple different ways you used the food computer as a teaching tool?
We used it to practice a lot of data collection and math as we monitored the plants’ growth. First, when we first put all the seedlings into the machine, we measured them. Then we’d come back every few days and measure again. We also compared root growth to seedling growth, and the students could see that the roots were growing much faster than the seedlings. You can’t do that with an ordinary garden unless you uproot your plants.

Also, after harvesting the plants, we used them in salads! This fit in with a unit on cooking chemistry.

And we’re working to get our 8th graders more involved so that next year they can come up with ideal conditions or climate recipes” for how particular plants grow best. They’ll collaborate with the first graders, who will try out the recipes and see what works.

How else have you incorporated technology into science classes, particularly for younger students?
With our first graders, we worked with a robot called Bee-Bot that teaches very simple computer programming for kids as young as 4. It didn’t feel like technology for technology’s sake because the kids were already learning about bees and pollination; we just added sequential thinking and measuring skills to the mix.

For that lesson, I took a clear shower curtain and drew a map on it with gardens, fences, and flowers that needed to be pollinated. Then we put the Bee-Bot onto the map and let the students figure out how far the bee moves each time you push its button. They learned how to program it to travel the right distance to pollinate the flowers without getting stuck at a fence. Students get excited about the technology, but they get even more excited when it makes sense the context of other things they’re learning.

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The Educator Spotlight series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.

2 thoughts on “Educator Spotlight: What’s a Food Computer?!

  1. “Students get excited about the technology”… That’s a positive signal, that next generation might find better solutions on food production.The world’s population is increasing very fast and we need smart solution. Computers always helped many aspects of our lives. Hope teachers and future scientists find the best solution for growing food on a non friendly environment.

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