Hydroponics Club Grows Food For Those In Need, Teaches Methods to Local Kids

  • Using heat guns and a repurposed cider bottle, club members Sophia Lex and Colin Petersen modify PVC pipe for use in a vertical system. (Tom Altany/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Sophomores Edie Fields, a biology major, and Leah Roth, an environmental engineering major, collaborate with Aaron Westerman, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, to connect water flow tubing for an A-frame hydroponics system. (Tom Altany/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Lettuce seedlings are placed into net cups in a vertical hydroponic system. Nutrient-enriched water flows through the pipes to nourish the plants. (Tom Altany/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Hydroponically-grown lettuce is ready to harvest in four to five weeks. (Tom Altany/University of Pittsburgh)
  • Club vice president William Sauerland, a sophomore majoring in computer science, and president Luke Persin, a senior majoring in biological sciences, pose near the vertical growing system in the hydroponics club’s Homewood garage. Varying spectrums of light can be used for optimal plant growth. (Tom Altany/University of Pittsburgh)

On a sunny fall Sunday afternoon, music pours down a narrow alley from a small garage in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood.

Inside, along the back wall, small green seedlings hang in columns suspended from a modified garment rack. A wooden A-frame holds rows of PVC pipe, modified to hold small plants. 

Amid a jumble of hand tools, scattered PVC pipes and bags of clay pebbles stacked three deep, a dozen and a half Pitt students huddle in small groups. 

Some work to the beat of the music, using hand saws and heat guns to cut and modify PVC pipe; others meticulously connect sections of flexible rubber tubing; still others unpack supplies and scrub plastic tote boxes. 

Their purpose: expanding and optimizing the systems at this, the home base of the hydroponics club.

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil, using nutrient-enriched water. “It’s the farming of the future,” said club president Luke Persin. Among the advantages is that plants grow faster and produce better yields, without the need for pesticides or herbicides. “Hydroponics uses 90% less water than traditional methods, and there’s no end to the growing season,” he said. 

The club has close ties to the Swanson School of Engineering, but students come from a variety of majors, said Persin, who is a senior majoring in biological sciences. Student members gain hands-on experience in designing and building hydroponic growing systems, but the club’s purpose extends far beyond its own four walls. 

The greens they grow take four to five weeks to mature, and at full production, 99 heads of lettuce could be harvested each week, Persin estimated. The produce is grown to help feed neighbors in need, including through the Pitt Pantry, which serves students.

Club members also share their knowledge and passion. A big part of their mission is to reach out—in the community, in schools and across campus—to inspire others to make their own hydroponic growing systems.  

Hydroponic gardening can be as simple as modifying a water bottle to hold growing medium and seedlings. The club regularly offers hands-on “build a mini system” nights to teach other students how to grow their own lettuce or basil without soil—even on a dorm room windowsill. Members also are exploring the potential for installing systems in prominent spots on campus, to raise awareness as well as produce. 

In addition to their Homewood location, club members maintain a hydroponic system at the nearby nonprofit Community Human Services. It provides fresh lettuce for the CHS food pantry, which serves more than 800 families in Pittsburgh’s South Oakland neighborhood.

The students also are partnering with The Community Day School in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, which serves students age 3 through grade 8. Club members have visited to teach the students about hydroponics, and, with students in grades 6 through 8, have helped design and build a system that can be moved among classrooms at the school. They expect to complete the project in January.   

“It’s been helpful for the team to come in and show us,” said Molly Muffet, the school’s sustainability coordinator. 

The Pitt volunteers helped brainstorm and fine-tune the students’ own designs. “They guided us on some changes and are helping in the hands-on part as well,” Muffet said, noting that constructing the system has presented some challenges for her young first-time builders. “They’ve been very patient with the kids,” she said. 

The rolling horizontal system initially will be used to grow lettuce, but Muffet envisions growing parsley for use in a Passover observance in spring, and possibly adding systems to grow cherry tomatoes as snacks. She expects to continue working with the hydroponics club to keep the systems running properly. “They’re very knowledgeable and we’re glad to have their professional advice to help us problem-solve.” 

Tracing the roots

David SanchezThe club got its official start in the 2015-16 academic year, but hydroponics projects on the Pitt campus aren’t new. The first was envisioned by Justin Tomko (ENGR ’12), now a graduate student in mechanical engineering, who undertook a project to explore how hydroponics could help meet basic food needs in Haiti, said faculty member David Sanchez of the Swanson School of Engineering’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Hydroponics systems projects, some aimed at meeting local needs in urban “food deserts,” where access to affordable fresh, healthful foods is lacking, continued under Pitt’s chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World before this current club launched to focus specifically on hydroponics. 

Sanchez, the hydroponics club’s faculty adviser, said, “The idea of urban agriculture permeates what I do, whether in the classroom, in design labs, startups, student projects or advising the club.”

Agriculture accounts for about 80% of the nation's consumptive water use, Sanchez explained, noting that drought and increased demand from domestic and industrial use is putting water supplies under high stress, as is being seen in California, where much of the nation’s fruit, vegetables and nuts are grown. 

Nutrient runoff from farm fields promotes excess algae growth, which uses up oxygen in the water and creates dead zones that negatively affect aquatic life downstream. 

At the same time, demographic trends indicate that urbanization is rising, he said, adding that the United Nations estimates that by 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. 

“Hydroponics has a lot of potential to fit into a portfolio of methods to meet food needs of the future in a more sustainable way,” he said.

Support for Pitt Hydroponics has come primarily from the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation, where Sanchez is the assistant director for education and community engagement. Sanchez also directs Pitt’s undergraduate certificate in sustainability program and the Swanson school’s master of science in sustainability engineering program. His research in sustainable design labs supports additional projects that foster cross-pollination of sustainable ideas.

The goal of the sustainable design labs is to undertake projects that will have impact. In the same vein, the club’s projects all must deepen student engagement and education, Sanchez said. 

“We emphasize that a sustainable design starts with understanding the challenge through other’s perspectives,” said Sanchez.

“We are building a culture around how you use engineering to serve people.”