Opportunities For Growth Abound
Opportunities For Growth Abound
Rice University students learn science basics by contributing to a startup urban farm
Video produced by Brandon Martin/Rice University
HOUSTON – (May 2, 2017) – Freshmen in two Rice University classrooms teamed up this spring to make a joyful contribution to Recipe for Success' Hope Farms in Houston and learn basic scientific method along the way.
Learning literally from the ground up, the students developed their analysis of soil from fields at the urban farm, which was founded to bring nutrition to a food desert in the south part of the city.
At the start of the semester, lecturers Sandra Bishnoi and Michelle Gilbertson, both part of Rice's Wiess School of Natural Sciences, brought students to collect samples from the farm a few miles south of campus. Back then, the 7-acre site and former location of a Houston high school was still bare.
The students were pleased to return in April to see nearly an acre bursting with lettuce, tomatoes, carrots and other produce, some ready for harvest. The fruits -- and vegetables -- of their studies will help as the farm plows and plants new fields in the coming seasons.
"I'm a pre-med student and I came into this class expecting to do research, but not on this subject," Raymond Tjhia said while visiting the farm in April. "It's a really neat experience. At Rice, you can get your hands dirty and do something that helps the community while also gaining skills that will help you in any field."
"We really lucked out in finding a connection with Rice," said Hope Farms manager Amy Scott, who met Bishnoi and Gilbertson through Caroline Masiello, a Rice professor of Earth science and chemistry. "We discovered we had a lot of common purposes, that the professors were looking for opportunities for their students to have a real-life application of their skills and we were looking to learn a lot about our soil, since it is a wild card in a lot of ways."
Scott said the students' most surprising discovery revealed differences in soil acidity from field to field. "I wasn't that aware of how much the pHwas fluctuating in our fields," she said. "We ended up having a pretty broad range. That, I found out, could have been affected by our well water, which is much more acidic than we realized."
Acidity was only one aspect of the study. Gilbertson's chemistry class also analyzed the soil's salinity, conductivity, ion exchange and asphalt contamination, noting at a presentation for farm officials that material left over from razed structures had not hurt the soil. "But where the school building sat on the soil, we're finding low carbon mass," she said. "That's because nothing has grown on it and died and put carbon back into the soil."
Bishnoi's biology class tested for acidity and also designed experiments to study soil microbiology, phosphorus deficiency and water retention. "We have teams using an organism called Daphnia magna, a model of toxicity for effluents in water being drained off an area," she said. "Another team is looking at good and bad microbes in the soil to see how can we modify the microbiology to improve cultivation."
The students planted seeds in soil samples from the farm alongside seeds in potting soil. "They compared the yield from spinach and green beans, crops we knew would grow quickly," Bishnoi said. "We've gotten some nice leaf growth and germination." However, they discovered that soil from raised beds at the farm only allowed seeds to germinate and not grow into edibles.
"The clay is holding onto all of the minerals and not releasing them to the plant," she said. "The plant is having to work too hard, so there has to be some kind of soil amendment to allow better permeation."
While many laboratory courses begin with a prescribed set of experiments that lead to a foregone result, the Rice freshmen were given problems and told to design their own protocols.
"I really appreciate that you get to try to figure it out on your own," said Michelle Nguyen, the only student to take both classes. "It's been a lot of trial and error, and the method that you come up with initially doesn't necessarily work out. But it's a whole learning process."
Hope Farms' chief agricultural officer Justin Myers said the focus of its parent foundation, Recipe for Success, has been education, and it has worked extensively in Houston schools to teach children about nutrition. When the chance to establish an actual farm appeared, the organization wasted no time: It bought the former Carnegie Vanguard High School site and began preparing it for planting.
"It gave the neighbors comfort to know we were buying the land, not just leasing it until developers came in and started building," Myers said.
Hope Farms hosted its first farmers market on Earth Day, April 22. The first produce traveled mere yards from farm to farm stand, where people from the community lined up to get fresh vegetables.
Scott said she is already considering what tests she'd like Rice students to run in the future. "We appreciated their enthusiasm and dedication to finding out what's going on, coming up with really interesting experiments and making sure every step along the way that it was something that was going to benefit us," she said.
Visit the Hope Farms website at http://recipe4success.org/programs/hope-farms.html
This news release can be found online at http://news.rice.edu/2017/05/02/opportunities-for-growth-abound/
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Wiess School of Natural Sciences: http://natsci.rice.edu
Recipe for Success: http://recipe4success.org/about-us/
Located on a 300-acre forested campus in Houston, Rice University is consistently ranked among the nation’s top 20 universities by U.S. News & World Report. Rice has highly respected schools of Architecture, Business, Continuing Studies, Engineering, Humanities, Music, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences and is home to the Baker Institute for Public Policy. With 3,879 undergraduates and 2,861 graduate students, Rice’s undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio is 6-to-1. Its residential college system builds close-knit communities and lifelong friendships, just one reason why Rice is ranked No. 1 for happiest students and for lots of race/class interaction by the Princeton Review. Rice is also rated as a best value among private universities by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance. To read “What they’re saying about Rice,” go to http://tinyurl.com/RiceUniversityoverview.