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NIC students build high-tech greenhouse for STEM school

Posted: Friday, Jan 26, 2024
NIC students build high-tech greenhouse for STEM school
From left, NIC students Sean Mecham, Colin Clang, Garrett Smith and Wayne Cardwell work on the greenhouse project for Fernan STEM Academy on Dec. 4.

As any local gardener can tell you, growing plants in North Idaho isn’t easy – especially during the school year. Snow and freezing temperatures can create significant obstacles for instructors trying to teach how to care for flora.

In an effort to extend their cultivation curriculum throughout the entire school year, staff at Fernan STEM Academy sought innovative solutions, leading them to contact the NIC Engineering Department last spring.

“We needed a way to expand the growing season,” Fernan STEM Academy Principal Kathy Livingston said. “It’s hard to show students how to grow here during the school year because once we get them in, we only have a few good weeks. Then winter hits and spring in North Idaho can be so fickle, and then the school year is over.”

Led by NIC instructors Brian Hatchell and Jeremy Kingma, NIC students enrolled in the Engineering Analysis course each semester are assigned a community project. For the greenhouse project, each student was tasked with one or more subsystems and had to design, analyze and fabricate their project component. Some of the tasks required outside-the-box thinking including the heating system, which consisted of connecting seedling trays to electrical wire typically used for heating car seats.

“I am really proud of the students that participated in the project,” Hatchell said. “We had several problems to solve, and no one ran away from the challenges. When we plugged in the system and all the systems came to life, there was a surge of joy and a round of high fives.”

The 5-foot tall, 4-foot by 4-foot greenhouse is equipped with a state-of-the-art automatic irrigation system, humidity sensors, motorized air intake, grow lights and heaters for year-round use. The systems are controlled by a computer so they can be set to manage seedling needs on a preset schedule.

“I was more than thrilled with it,” Livingston said. “I thought they came up with brilliant ways to protect it in the winter and how to keep the seedlings heated.”

Livingston said the greenhouse is meant to grow seedlings during the winter and is one of the steps in overhauling the elementary school’s existing greenhouse and gardening area.

Hatchell said that projects like the greenhouse help provide a real-world application for students to sharpen their computer-aided design, electronic design and programming skills. Students learned the importance of communicating with each other and working with a client’s needs.

“My experience working on the greenhouse was challenging and very rewarding,” NIC Student Garrett Smith said. “The hands-on engineering gave me a taste of what I could face in my career as an engineer.”

Hatchell said he plans on helping staff at Fernan STEM Academy come up with activities for the greenhouse in the spring.

“The greenhouse, along with the hydroponics system the class completed in 2022, will stand as an example of the significant work and innovation that can be accomplished in Engineering 223,” Hatchell said.

For more information, contact NIC Physics Professor Brian Hatchell at Brian.Hatchell@nic.edu or (208) 769-7708.

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