Students built a food computer to trial tomato seed growth

Two students created a “food computer” to control and monitor growing conditions as part of a unique program in the school's Food Science Lab.

ILLINOIS, UNITED STATES – Two students, Diego Nava and Diana Guallpa have created a “food computer” as part of a unique program at Carl Schurz High School in Chicago. It is housed in the school’s Food Science Lab, used to research urban farming and nutrition, and undertake vocational training in 21st century farming techniques.

The Lab is a pilot program and has been established in an unused shop space within the school. It was co-founded by Jaime Guerrero, a local marketing executive and urban farming advocate, along with the nonprofit group Arts Alive Chicago in 2015.

Diana Guallpa and Diego Nava

Inspired by the Open Agriculture Initiative at MIT, the food computer is a sensor-controlled hydroponic and aeroponic agricultural system. Best described as an insulated box in which to grow plants, with digital sensors controlling and monitoring climate, energy and plant growth. The sensors track variables such as carbon dioxide levels, air temperature, humidity levels, dissolved oxygen, potential hydrogen, electrical conductivity, and root-zone temperature. Having the capacity to be set up anywhere in the world, healthy produce can be grown in the most desolate conditions.

Guallpa and Nava’s food computer is constructed on an Arduino Uno platform, where the sensors connect. The Arduino is connected to the brains of the food computer, a Raspberry Pi 2 B, which then connects to the internet. The setup also includes a monitor and notebook to input commands to the dashboard and a camera to stream video from inside the food computer.

The capacity to store and share the sensor data through internet connectivity opens up the potential for analysing ideal growing conditions for specific fruit or vegetables from multiple data inputs collected worldwide over time. Ultimately, with an internet connection and the basic hardware and software of the food computer anyone could grow the same food, regardless of location and local environment, by replicating the ideal conditions within the computer environment.

Mitch Arsenie, an AP Environment Science teacher at Schurz emphases the food computer has been a very student-driven initiative, crediting Nava and Guallpa for researching the sensors and hardware, piecing together the hardware and programming the operating system. Neither of them had skills in this area prior to the project.

I learned a lot about programming while working on the food computer. Being able to work on a prototype like that was really rad. And beyond that, I learned so much about agricultural systems. – Diego Nava

“At Schurz, both of these kids picked up great analytical and problem solving skills from the AP environmental and engineering programs they’re both a part of. It was so cool to see those skills applied to this new technology, the food computer. This idea is straight from MIT — no high schoolers in Chicago had done anything with it before. No one could have done it alone; it took them working as a team,” says Arsenie.

Arsenie has plans underway for the next class of students to conduct comparative studies with tomato seeds that have spent some time on the International Space Station (ISS). The tomato seeds were sent to ISS on board SpaceX’s Dragon and returned to Earth after spending five weeks in space through an educational program called Tomatosphere.

The Tomatosphere program has seen an estimated three million students in the U.S. and Canada grow tomato seeds from space and report back on germination rates, growth patterns and the vigor of the seeds.

With the Food Science Lab and now, the Food Computer at Carl Schurz High School, there is potential to study the germination and growth rates of the tomato seeds in the food computer versus a traditional pot and soil and grow lights in the lab. The initiative will compare brand new systems like the food computer to old-fashioned farming techniques to identify differences in germination rates and growth.

Images: Courtesy of Jaime Guerrero at Schurz Food Lab

More Information:

Contact:
Schurz High School Food Science Lab
Schurz Food Lab on Twitter

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