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A byte to eat: Students grow food using tabletop greenhouses controlled by computers

Half an hour into a cooking competition at Green Street Academy, Tyana Givens, 15, dipped a plastic spoon into a pot simmering with ground turkey, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, garlic and mushrooms over a burner in a science classroom.

She and the two other students, Kalimah Ball and Maya Smith, both 17, were making meat sauce from scratch to toss with rotini.

The girls had spent the past five weeks learning how to grow their own produce using food computers — tabletop greenhouses controlled by computer programs — at Green Street Academy, a charter school in Baltimore. The course, which weaved together lessons on programming, food systems and agriculture, culminated with an “Iron Chef”-style cooking contest.

Givens took a taste of the sauce and called her teacher over for advice.

“It’s missing something,” she said. “I just don’t know what.”

Her group later added arugula, one of two crops they’d learned to grow inside the food computers they’d built just weeks earlier.

With the help of instructor Melanie Shimano, the all-girl class of 11 high school students and recent graduates incubated arugula and lettuce inside moving-box-size cubes made from insulation foam, duct-taped together with a grow light on the lid and an observation window on the front. A $30 computer the size of a credit card controlled temperature, light and water inside the contraptions using code the students wrote themselves.

Shimano, a 26-year-old entrepreneur, piloted the course as part of Green Street Academy’s junior biotechnology class in the spring and offered it this summer through YouthWorks, a grant-funded program that provided summer work experiences for 8,300 14- to 21-year-olds in Baltimore. She will expand the program to other schools in the fall, including Gwynns Falls Elementary School.

“Technology is not something that a lot of teachers have a lot of resources for all the time, but it’s something that’s not difficult to do with a relatively low amount of funding,” Shimano said. “Baltimore is a hub for startups and food, so kind of fostering that culture of being into technology and into design and see all the pieces fit together is really cool.”

While her course is unique to Baltimore, it’s part of a broader program born at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab called the Open Agriculture Initiative, or OpenAg, which aims to create inventive, sustainable food systems through open-source technology. In addition to 10 full-time staff and researchers, OpenAg is primarily an online community of about 1,400 educators, growers, chefs and retailers in 47 countries, according to Hildreth England, OpenAg’s assistant director.

“The interest level across the board generally comes from folks who are concerned about food systems and concerned about the environment, and it’s usually a combination of the two,” England said.

Food computers can replicate the ideal growing conditions — or create a climate that draws out certain flavors and textures — for produce by manipulating factors including light, humidity and water intake.

”It’s not meant to supplant conventional agriculture, but trying to give the world just an alternative, or at least one more tool in their toolbox to produce food,” England said.

Shimano’s students began their first class by planting lettuce and arugula seeds, and they built the foam shells of the food computers while their seeds sprouted.

They spent the next few weeks learning the basics of computer programming. Using a language called Python, the girls created codes to control the temperature and amounts of water and light in their food computers, and to take pictures of their plants each day. With each new bit of code they learned, they added new components and functions to the computers like fans, thermometers and humidity sensors.

Many students said the course offered their first brush with computer programming.

“It was fun, but it was stressful,” Givens said. “The programming was stressful.”

Others, like 16-year-old Tynija Lucas, took to it more naturally.

“It was easy,” she said.

Brian Giglio, dean of students for Green Street Academy’s middle school, who oversaw the summer program, said he heard from students that although some concepts were difficult to grasp, they liked seeing the end results.

“They’ve loved the hands-on aspect of it,” Giglio said. “The coding, I think, was a little abstract, but I think they enjoyed doing something and then seeing it happen. But like most things in education, where it becomes challenging is trying to like extrapolate it and connect it to the real world.”

Shimano agreed the hands-on work makes lessons stick.

“It’s easy to kind of explain it with pictures, but it’s a lot more valuable for the kids, I think, to do stuff,” she said.

Food computers have broader implications beyond the classroom, England said. The world will need to rethink the way it feeds urban populations as more people flock to cities during the coming decades, and food computers, which use up to 90 percent less water than traditional agriculture and can help reduce food waste, could be part of the solution, she said.

“The food system challenges that exist in urban centers in the U.S. are going to get more intense and more strained,” England said. “The ways we produce enough food and ship food to these urban centers and support the production of food at a local level — this entire system is essentially going to have to be rethought.”

MIT’s Media Lab is working to make the open-source technology, which is free and public, available to create food computers for production at any level — from personal food computers to computers the size of warehouses. And Shimano is working with OpenAg to fine-tune a food computer for classrooms and develop a comprehensive curriculum for school systems.

Data from those using the technology has become part of MIT’s research.

“Food and agriculture are such immense industries and disciplines that there is no way that one tiny little lab at the MIT Media Lab could cover the research needed to really address all parts of the food system,” England said. “We’ve seen this massive interest, and interest from folks of all different sides of the conversation.”

For the technology to catch on, it has to be socially and culturally accessible and acceptable, England said.

“This is not an ‘if you build it, they will come’ scenario,” England said. “We have to make sure the technology is something folks are curious about, something they can engage with.”

That much was true for Shimano’s class, where students who were initially more interested in browsing their Instagram feeds discovered they could program thumbnail-sized cameras to take selfies. Those cameras were later inserted into the food computers to track their plants’ growth with daily photos.

By the end of the five-week summer course, the lettuce had grown several inches in height, and the arugula was about half that size.

During Shimano’s spring course, which ran about twice as long, students were able to use the arugula and lettuce they grew in the culminating cooking competitions. The summer students simulated the final products with store-bought lettuce and arugula.

One group in the contest centerpieced lettuce in a salad of chicken, zucchini, bell peppers and onion tossed with lemon dressing. Another group made chicken tacos stuffed with fried chicken, lettuce, peppers and homemade mayonnaise. Givens’ group folded arugula into their pasta sauce.

About 40 students from other classes sifted through their makeshift kitchen, tasting and rating each of the dishes on a scale of one to five. The chicken tacos took home the win.

All the while, the food computers glowed in the background, lettuce leaves stretching toward the lights.

smeehan@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sarahvmeehan

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