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WVU Extension partners with Wheeling hydroponics business on STEM education grant project

Lettuce grown at a local farm's aquaponics operation

Fourth and fifth graders in Ohio County and throughout West Virginia will learn about hydroponics as an alternative crop production technique through a STEM education project funded by the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium. The award will provide students in upper elementary grades hands-on STEM learning opportunities through a series of six hydroponics lessons.

The team leading this project illustrates the benefits of partnerships that bring West Virginia University  Extension Service faculty together with small business entrepreneurs with technical expertise. Karen Cox, WVU Extension Service agent in Ohio County, brings her expertise in agriculture and natural resources to show how the hydroponics education program can be integrated into WVU Extension Service’s educational resources for youths. Laurie Ruberg, CEO of PLANTS, LLC, has extensive experience using the technology and research available from NASA to create STEM learning tools and activities. This project supports both WVU Extension Service and NASA education goals by connecting youths to information and knowledge that enables them to change their lives and improve their communities. The hydroponics project will also align with the NASA Human Exploration Mission goals as it will introduce participating youths to space biology research conducted on the International Space Station.

“The hydroponics curriculum development project will address an observed need for access to garden based learning for youths who do not have access to soil or land,” Cox explained.

Ruberg added, “The hydroponics project will get kids collecting and sharing data while designing, building and testing soilless agriculture systems. Students will be able to see how their hydroponics parallel the NASA Space Station Live: Cultivating Plant Growth videos.”

A review of existing WVU Extension Service 4-H resources on hydroponics shows that materials exist at the high school level, but no 4-H materials are available for fourth and fifth grades. Creating this hydroponics curriculum so that it is available in digital format would be an innovative step for the West Virginia 4-H program. Disseminating this resource digitally to 4-H and school groups will greatly increase access to this material for underserved and diverse populations in urban areas who may not act access to traditional garden based learning programs.

Goals of this project include improved engagement among youths in STEM learning opportunities and in school in general, as well as increased interest in STEM-based fields. Improved consumption of fruits and vegetables by youths as well as increased home production of produce among families that do not have a yard are also anticipated. These changes will in turn improve food security, family engagement and support, and help to reduce nutritional deficits experienced by lower income families.  

  • Some of the questions that students will be exploring during their hydroponic activities are:
  • Can hydroponic crops be grown organically?
  • What effect does different types of lighting have on plant growth, development and taste?
  • What type of hydroponic system and crop planning could be used to feed a family on a year-round basis?
  • What are the input costs and output values for growing produce year-round using a hydroponic system?

One of the key learning goals of the Hydroponics project is to guide students to collect consistent and accurate data about their hydroponic crops and production systems. This is an important practice for all types of STEM investigations and is a critical element of the hydroponics project.

The partners on this project share a mission to promote health, wellness and positive change for all West Virginians.

If you would like more information about this project, please contact Laurie Ruberg at 304-639-3894 or, or contact Karen Cox at 304-234-3673 or