By: Nithya Rajeev
When asked what plants need to grow, most people would think of water, sunlight, and soil. However, what if the same plants could be grown in an environment which was devoid of soil? Recently, Chemistry Teacher Katy Kuei, along with Sophomores Harman Brah, Alvin Hsu, and Amy Li, began testing exactly this concept. By applying their knowledge about what plants need to thrive, the teacher-student team has begun growing small plants in different substrates, or growth mediums, with the exception of soil, a process which is otherwise known as hydroponics. This process involves the delivery of water directly to the plant root system and a substrate which can hold large amounts of water.
The motivation to begin this experiment stems from the fact that MSJ does not have any on-campus research programs, as compared to other schools in the U.S., most notably Thomas Jefferson High School in Virginia. With the goal of making a program in the classroom just as advanced, Kuei chose to supervise this project, and selected the group of sophomores to conduct the testing.
The research and planning phase began in mid-September and continues to play a key part in ensuring the experiment runs smoothly. “Quite a lot of time is going into thinking about where you are going to put the facilities, how you are going to take students in, and the time frame for the experiment,” advisor Kuei said. The team also had to make arrangements to use MSJ’s greenhouse by the C-wing cafeteria and lockers, which will help them compare the effects of outdoor and indoor growing.
As of right now, the experiment is still in its early stages, as more and more possible new substrates are brought in to replace the ones which did not support plant growth. However, the substrate is not the only variable being tested; there are additional variables which may also play a part in the growth rate of the plants. “The reason we have three different trays is because we are also going to vary the type of watering medium,” Hsu said. “This would test the different pH [values], and the different ions present in the solution.”
While keeping the goal of creating more on-campus research opportunities, Kuei also hopes to encourage students to participate in other science-related competitions. For example, the data produced from this hydroponics experiment can also be used to create projects for competitions such as the President’s Environmental Youth Awards or the DuPont Essay Challenge. Currently, Kuei and the student team hope to gather all the data from this experiment by early spring. Their first planned public presentation is scheduled for March 2014 at the Alameda County Science Fair, where they will explain their findings and educate the public about this concept.