Introducing Nanofarms: Changing the game for integrated K-12 STEM education

In response to challenges around financing and maintaining an educational school garden, we’ve developed a product called NanoFarms, indoor aquaponic systems for classrooms, that we’re very excited to announce. They address major challenges that confront schools’ abilities to teach STEM curriculum in a hands-on setting that integrates a diverse array of topics from environmental education to health and cooking.

According to a comprehensive survey of 558 schools in California, 99% of schools with gardens indicated that the garden is used to teach STEM related subjects. Using the garden as a way to reinforce interdisciplinary principles learned in the classroom is a natural fit - but implementing and maintaining a school garden isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Conclusions around the major challenges preventing a successful school garden indicated time constraints (32%), the lack of technical assistance with gardening (20%), the lack of instructional materials (30%), and the risk of vandalism (24%).

77% of the schools surveyed are located in urban and sub-urban areas; making available space, particularly farmable space, increasingly difficult. When asked how these schools would utilize a $10,000 grant to implement a school garden, 75% of them replied that they would spend it on a hardscape, irrigation, signage, garden tools, and compost material. These costs alone pose serious challenges for urban schools to start and maintain a school garden, and are major roadblocks to a scalable and consistent curriculum for teachers, where knowledge transfer can be standardized and scaled. Most schools do not have the outdoor space for a garden, and teachers, who by majority take responsibility for maintaining the garden, are not prepared to manage an entire garden.

By listening to this feedback from schools, we’ve designed a classroom solution that tackles these challenges head on, addressing the primary caveats in garden based integrated learning programs, and providing a better platform (aquaponics vs traditional soil based gardening) to implement lesson plans around curriculum.

Through a partnership with USC’s Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, enabled by a grant from Boeing, we have designed a comprehensive system that addresses these issues. We shrunk the garden to the size of 2’ by 4’, drastically minimizing the time required to maintain the system. We held a series of ‘train-the-trainers’ programs to assist teachers in implementing the curriculum that we’ve co-produced with USC in their classrooms, bridging the gap between knowledge transfer and curricular standards.

Lastly, we moved the system indoors, drastically minimizing the threat of vandalism and pests, and enabling students to increase their exposure to these living laboratories, and giving teachers more access to the garden. Our integrated classroom system, the NanoFarm™, requires no costly tools, uses 95% less water than an outdoor soil garden, doesn’t require farmable land, and significantly reduces costly inputs like fertilizer because the fish make it for them.

It is designed to be cool, fun, and engaging - and forces students to think about agriculture in a radically different way, preparing and inspiring the next generation to tackle the agricultural challenges of the 21st century.

Through this grant, we have begun installing Nano Farms in five classrooms in South Los Angeles, with additional systems slated for March and will continue to offer these to more schools in the area for a fraction of the price of a full-size school garden.