Growtainer grow pod at Riverview High School helps students learn life skills

When Riverview High School adopted a small hydroponics unit for inside a classroom, students were fascinated. So when the chance came in 2019 to apply for a USDA grant for $100,000 that would allow them to install a full hydroponic grow pod system right outside the school, district officials jumped at the chance.

The district received and matched the grant, and the unit is now fully operational at the Riverview Jr./Sr. High School. It helps to enrich students by teaching them how to grow food. Run by life skills teacher Mike McConnell with primary help from students Caden Smith and Jacob Bennett, the grow pod unit utilizes sustainable energy, recycled water, and solar panels, and it is approaching environmental neutrality.

Called a Growtainer and built by Glenn Berhman, the unit is the only one of its kind in Pennsylvania. In fact, Riverview is the first high school in which a full unit has been installed. In the past, they have only been installed at universities.

Students in grades 7-12 can utilize and learn from the facility, and it helps supplement science, STEAM, and STEM programs at the school, allowing students to not only grow their own food, but also help supply freshly grown produce to the district’s food services program. “It’s a great extension of our science program here at the junior and senior high school,” said Neil English, Riverview superintendent.

The unit features two separate areas, one for growing in dirt and one that is a full hydroponic system in which the plants are grown in rockwool, a horticultural growing media made from basalt rock and chalk.

The area for growing in dirt features zucchini, tomatoes, and peppers. The students use a liquid or powder fertilizer mixed in water along with organic potting soil to feed the vegetables. The plants are in pots, which then sit atop trays under an LED lighting system. The students utilize a water holding tank to water the plants, and any overflow runs outside the grow pod to a storm drain.

On the hydroponic side, the students are growing kale, chard, cabbage, winter lettuce, spinach, basil, and bok choy. That side utilizes a fully automated water-dosing system set up on a timer. The nutrients are already mixed in, with an electronic system measuring the exact water PH and the temperature in the grow room.

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