ValleyBio is the newest student organization at Valley Lutheran. We recently connected with faculty advisor Mr. Ben Cooper and student Faith Marotzke to learn more about this group.
VL: Provide a brief explanation of the group’s activities and objectives.
Mr. Cooper: The overarching goal of ValleyBio is to provide students with real world experiences that cross curricular lines and help them to see the relevance of STEM in both their everyday lives and future careers. Other goals include learning how to grow food, learn about marketing and sales, use social media appropriately to promote our brand, and learn about budgeting and giving.
VL: How did you become interested in starting up a hydroponics system at Valley?
Mr. Cooper: I’ve always been interested in gardening and growing my own food. In 2019 I applied for and was selected as a fellow in the Dow Corning Foundation / SVSU STEM Community Partnership. This program seeks to develop programming and curriculum that help students change negative attitudes about STEM topics and show them the relevance of STEM in their lives and future careers. As a first year participant, I wanted to add scientifically robust, ongoing projects that were relevant, enjoyable, and also served as anchoring phenomena to our first semester biology curriculum. I used the grant funding to purchase supplies to build two A-frame nutrient film technique hydroponic systems.
Biology students planted and cared for lettuce during the 2019-2020 school year before it abruptly ended. Students had a lot of fun with this experience and strides were made, but I didn’t see that spark of attitudinal shift in STEM attitude I was hoping to see in my students; that STEM is relevant not only in their daily lives, but there is a fulfilling STEM career out there for them.
I participated again in the summer of 2020. Each participant was encouraged to modify or adapt their project to keep pushing towards the program goals. We were together on a Zoom call sharing our ideas. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to say about my project. When it was my turn, I blurted out “Students are going to grow hydroponic vegetables and microgreens. They are going to communicate and network with potential customers, utilizing social media in a positive way to promote their product. They will learn soft skills like responsibility and work ethic. They will learn fiscal responsibility by paying attention to budget and profit margin, keeping in mind that 10% of what we earn, before expenses, will be given back in some way.” Everyone on the call seemed to like this idea, and that is where I’ve been focusing my time, energy, and grant funding ever since.
VL: Faith, how did you get involved with ValleyBio?
Marotzke: I heard about it through Instagram and attended the first meeting and thought it seemed like it was a great idea and wanted to be a part of it. If anyone would like to get involved now we’re almost always doing something after school in Mr. Cooper’s room and always looking for new people.
VL: Where did all the supplies and equipment come from?
Mr. Cooper: Much of the equipment was paid for through the Dow Corning Foundation – SVSU Community STEM Partnership program. I’ve qualified for $4,000 in grant money so far, and if I am selected again this summer, there will be another $2,000 to invest in the program. There have been a lot of unexpected expenses I didn’t budget for along the way that have mostly come out of my own pocket (haha).
VL: Mr. Cooper, in your opinion what have students enjoyed the most about their involvement in this group?
Mr. Cooper: Some students have simply enjoyed watching the plants grow. How often do we stop and watch something change and grow over time? Other students have enjoyed tasks, such as planting and harvesting microgreens, performing pH checks and nutrient flushes on our hydroponic systems. Some students have taken to learning how to use social media to help the group develop a brand. They definitely enjoy socializing together as they do these things. I also think students enjoy having something to do after school. So much has been cancelled, postponed, or modified this year. I would invite more students to check us out for this very reason.
This past week, we experimented with some recipes. After all, if we’re going to market and sell something, we should probably know what to do with it. The students cooked stir fried pea microgreens with garlic and ginger. They absolutely loved them and ate around $30 worth of pea microgreens. We had a blast.
VL: Faith, what do you enjoy the most about growing vegetables hydroponically?
Marotzke: It’s amazing to see how quickly the plants grow from day to day and know that I helped make that happen.
VL: Beyond the process of growing a product, what have you learned about budgeting and marketing these veggies?
Marotzke: I have learned a ton about how to run a social media business account and how to properly market our products online. It’s a lot more important than one might think!
VL: Any trial and error experiences to share?
Mr. Cooper: Yes, hydroponics is unforgiving. Unlike a traditional garden, you can go out of town for a few weeks, and while things may get messy, plants will find what they are looking for in the soil. In a hydroponic system, you are entirely responsible for every macro and micronutrient that enters the system. Each plant species has a specific nutrient preference which must be measured and monitored. In addition, plants produce metabolic waste that alter the pH of the system. This must be measured and adjusted daily. We’re still trying to figure this out for our hydroponic cucumbers and tomatoes. Our other main endeavor, microgreens, are not as difficult to grow, however they are extremely delicate and require daily care, including on Saturdays and Sundays.
In addition, we’ve struggled to find a market beyond our teachers. We are hoping that as word gets out there, people who have tried our product will share with others how fresh and delicious they are. Seriously, our lettuce is amazing, and you’ve got to give microgreens a try. If you’re not sure how to use microgreens, stay tuned for some YouTube recipe videos – we’re working on them.
VL: If someone reading this is interested in trying your produce, what’s the best way to get in touch with your group?
Mr. Cooper: Email us at ValleyBio@vlhs.com. You can preorder from our next harvest or just find out what’s available next. Also readers can follow us on Instagram at Valley.Bio
VL: What are the goals for the future of Valley Bio?
Mr. Cooper: Our mission statement at Valley is “Preparing students for life with Christ as our foundation.” I’ve been thinking a lot about how the current program aligns with our school mission statement and how it could even more so. For the time being, we want to keep honing our skills so we can grow and provide an excellent product, be profitable (so we can better experience the joy of giving), get the word out through marketing and advertising, and even expand production a bit if necessary. I think we’re a ways off from this, but I would love to see the group present our product to a chef, or rent space at SVRC Marketplace.
One of my personal goals is definitely for more student involvement. We have a dedicated, but small group. There are a lot of students leaving at 3:05 who could be a part of this and contribute a lot to the group. It’s not a sport. It’s not a traditional extracurricular activity. So what? Give it a try!
In the future, the sky’s the limit. Could we expand into other products? Could a program like this fit into a cross curricular course at Valley? I think there’s a lot of potential here, and I am excited to be a part of it.