Wantagh Middle School students use new technology to grow food
Sal Mulé is a science teacher at Wantagh Middle School, where his lesson plan is brought to life using the latest innovations in technology. The class, Modern Food, is an elective class, where students have a hands-on approach to growing food indoors in small spaces.
"You're in there you're working you're doing it, you're watching how the plants grow how the fish grow," says eighth grader Alexis Schoenfeld.
The plants grow in nutrient-rich water instead of soil, and under grow lights instead of sunshine. The method is called hydroponics. It's a revolutionary way to grow plants in small spaces.
"It's not the future, it's already happening," Sal Mulé explains. Hydroponics is used to grow many of produce options found in stores, like Canada greenhouse grown tomatoes, which can grow year-round despite the country's cold climate.
Many schools are using hydroponics as part of the lesson plan, but Mulé's hydroponics lab is one of a kind. Unlike other programs that use premade hydroponic kits, Mulé built all of this on his own. This gives students a chance to see an assortment of different ways plants can grow with hydroponics, and it teaches problem-solving when things go wrong.
"When I first came to the class it was a little intimidated because of all of this stuff. It's a different way of teaching than a lot of the teachers now," explains eighth grader Gavyn Scherr.
It may look complicated, but Sal Mulé explains how this all started with just a plastic shoe box filled with water on a windowsill. "I was struggling as a teacher. I was asked to try to make a change with the kids. The project has continued to grow over the past 26 years," he says.
"He's a great teacher, he's hilarious. Absolutely fantastic," Maxwell Burkhardt tells News12 when we asked about Mr. Mulé
Mule says hydroponics systems don't have to be fancy. It is possible in the classroom for just a few dollars using everyday items like buckets. "It's as easy as it gets. Fill up a reservoir with nutrient solution. Float the Styrofoam on the nutrients and the plant finds the nutrient," he says.
Middle schoolers also learn about aquaculture. They raise their own aquatic animals like fish and shrimp. When the fish get too big for tanks, they go into a makeshift pond in the middle of the classroom.
Instead of adding nutrients to the plants growing in water, waste from the fishpond feeds the plants. The combination of aquaculture and hydroponics is called aquaponics. It's a lesson in sustainability and shows students that everything in nature has a purpose.
Administrators at Wantagh Middle School credit elective programs like Modern Food Production as the reason behind the school's recent designation as an Essential Elements "School to Watch." The School to Watch program is designed to "promote and guide the school improvement process" and highlight characteristics of "high-performing" middle schools. Wantagh is one of a handful of schools on the island that will be recognized at the National Forum Conference in Washington, D.C. on June 22.