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‘Agriculture of the future’ comes to the classroom in Mattituck

01/14/2016 12:00 PM |

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Toss out the old pizza party playbook: Mattituck High School just made “salad party” the new standard for classroom events.

The name is fairly self-evident, of course. But the students in Eric Frend’s environmental science classes didn’t just wear festive hats while eating a bunch of healthy greens purchased from a store. They grew the crops themselves — in the classroom.

Mattituck High School had been planning for months to offer an innovative environmental science program that emphasized agriculture in a greenhouse on the school’s property, but when the greenhouse was stalled by the state Department of Education, the school didn’t let the state ruin their plans. The teachers simply moved the program inside.

Now, a previously unused classroom is filled with boxes of lettuce and bok choy plants, some in soil and some floating in a hydroponic box on the floor. Students file in every day to spray the plants with water, adjust the overhead lights and, of course, snack on their projects.

“Things kept getting held up,” said Sam Shaffrey, a senior in the class. “It was sort of like, ‘We need to grow something, like, now.’ So we decided that we’d take the ideas we had for outside and move them inside.”

The program was designed as part of the district’s sustainable agriculture initiative. Jamesport farmer Carl Gabrielsen donated and built the 1,200-square-foot greenhouse outside, but so far the school has not been able to use it because it does not meet Department of Education code.

So in October, teachers joined forces and came up with a solution: use an empty classroom and do the agriculture indoors. Last week, the students celebrated their first harvest — which led to festive in-classroom salad-eating.

Mr. Gabrielsen donated the lights that hang over the boxes for indoor growing. Mr. Frend, who also teaches earth science and meteorology, took the lead and garnered support from others in the building.

John Roslak, a TV production teacher (who was named The Suffolk Times’ Educator of the Year last week), handled the electrical setup, carpentry teacher Mike Jablonski built the boxes and earth science teacher Chip Henke set up the irrigation systems. Peconic’s Sang Lee Farms also helps the class with advice and consultations.

“This is so interesting because it’s like agriculture of the future,” said senior Raven Janoski. “It’s taking one more step into the farming of today.”

Mr. Frend teaches a lecture every day; every other day the students also have a lab period. But the level of independence and student involvement is apparent on a visit to the classroom. Students walk around the room with bottles to water the plants and scissors to trim them, and whenever questions arise about the amount of light or the variation of lettuce, they simply shout them across the room to Mr. Frend.

They have also learned how to manage a hydroponic box, a system in which plants essentially float atop a pool of water while they grow, thereby saving water and soil.

This level of hands-on learning is one of the main goals of the class, Mr. Frend said.

“Historically, this [farming] is what we’ve been doing out here,” he said. “Hopefully, some of the kids can find a job in this in the future, or a way of life. Hopefully, they can stay here when they get out of college.”

And the students themselves are aware of how important that hands-on learning is, especially in a region where agriculture is such a key industry. Sam, for example, has grown his own garden at home for years.

Raven, too, has worked at Long Season Farms in Aquebogue for five years, and she is “very passionate” about environmental science. Now, she can get even more of an idea about what a career in agriculture is like.

“It’s such a great opportunity for public schools to have this, especially in Mattituck, where a lot of kids are really passionate about environmental science and taking that extra step forward,” Raven said. “Farming is such an integral part of the North Fork and has been for centuries.”

The program isn’t finished evolving, either. Within a few months, Mr. Frend and his students should have virtually an entire miniature ecosystem set up within a single classroom. Fish will be grown in a tank and then moved into the hydroponic boxes to make them “aquaponic” boxes. Students will then need only to add fish food; fish excrement will serve as nutrition for the plants, which will in turn filter the tank.

The class will also experiment with “integrated pest management” by introducing ladybugs or aphids.

They won’t be getting any pizza when they arrive.

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Photo caption: Madison True (left) and Raven Janoski, both seniors, work in a soil box in Mattituck High School’s indoor agriculture lab. (Credit: Chris Lisinski)

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