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Hydroponics STEM program fosters crop of young gardeners, scientists

a young black woman
Lina Tran
Mitchelle Lyle returned to her roots in Amani to start the Hydroponics STEM program.

A new crop of gardeners is growing in Milwaukee. The hydroponics STEM program introduces high schoolers to agriculture, nutrition and careers in science. It started out focused on Milwaukee's Amani neighborhood, where residents often have limited access to grocery stores with fresh produce. After its first year, the program is now growing to a second classroom in Muskego Way.

Amani native Mitchelle Lyle, recently recognized through the African American Environmental Pioneer Awards, spent the last decade working as an engineer before returning home to start the program. I spoke with Lyle as she was getting ready to recruit interested students for the next class. Applications for the program are open now.

How did this program get started? Tell me about how you got into this. 

So I moved back to Milwaukee in 2018. Moving back to my childhood home, where we are now, I wanted to make sure that I was giving back to my community. I'm the youngest of my siblings. So once I moved away to college and out of state for work, no one was here, everybody moved on to their lives.

When I moved back, I wanted to bring more of that life back into the house, like with my siblings, with my nieces and nephews. I didn't want, you know, a lot of my experience to just kind of be taken as what they call the “brain drain” of Milwaukee. So I started gardening. I've always known that this area was a food insecure zone, just by living here, right? Like I always need to drive so far to the grocery store, especially one that has organic produce, or even restaurants aren't very close. So when I was thinking about what's one of the best ways that I could give back or one of the biggest needs, it was absolutely food in some capacity.

You mentioned that you started gardening. Were you just doing that out of your own personal interest before it became the program? 

I grew up with gardening, it was just always a part of life. My grandparents garden, my aunts, even my older sister. It was just something that you did, it didn't seem like an odd thing. I have fond memories around, you know, being able to go and pick my own tomatoes or cucumbers as a snack, or helping my aunt pick a zucchini so she can make zucchini bread for us. When I came of age, and was out on my own, I just always made a small plot for myself whether it was just herbs or, you know, small fruit, tomatoes and cucumbers and things.

So you knew that you wanted to come back home and focus on food insecurity. And you already had this past interest in gardening. How did you connect the dots to get to hydroponics? 

I realized we've always kind of done hydroponics. With just like herbs and things, putting it in a cup and letting that grow or an onion that started to sprout. We would put that in water and allow the sprouts to come up as well.

Yeah, I love that. It's like you get two plants for one. 

Exactly. So I won [a hydroponics unit] in a raffle at the Dominican Center. I got the unit and I was like, oh, this is cool. I'm gonna see how this works. I unboxed it and was really thinking to myself, this has a lot of mechanics to it. It's really interesting how I need to schedule my LED, for example, to replicate sunlight or the aggregation of the water is really like how the beetles and worms turn over our soil. I just found that really interesting.

It’s so much science that I think we know and recognize, but don't really pay attention to because it's not being presented as science. So I started to think about a program with another friend of mine, who has the Beyond STEM program, but she works with middle school students. I was like, “How about we do an agricultural engineering curriculum around it?” That's really what made me think this should be a STEM education program. That's when I started to build the curriculum and work with other partners.

The National Society of Black Engineers took me on as a partner. So this really helped us connect with our high school students from a pipeline perspective to get them interested in STEM, and moving them through different disciplines of engineering. And then working with the Dominican Center, because they're a great staple in the Amani neighborhood, and really focusing on the holistic neighbor. The Milwaukee Food Council really helped with me being able to buy the materials and everything for the students so that they can have a successful first year of the program.

a young black woman tends to plants growing in a hydroponics unit under a sunny window
Lina Tran
Mitchelle Lyle tends to plants growing in a hydroponics unit at her home.

Wow, what an accomplishment. So is the idea that you're going to schools and holding classes or are kids going to the Dominican Center? What has it been looking like in practice?

Yeah, students have been going to the Dominican Center. I want them to be able to maintain the community focus. Being able to walk past the community center or going there when it's not just classroom hours, makes a stronger connection between what they're doing and why they're doing it. I think that will give them a stronger hold. Even if it's not making the commitment to the community holistically, but making the commitment to themselves around healthy eating.

What does it look like for students to participate in the class? 

The days vary, based on the topic. There is some traditional lecture time, just to make sure that they understand the basics. But there are a lot of labs included, so they get to do experiments. There is a lot of habit-building. They grow their own microgreens and make their own microgreens salads, so they know what microgreens are and how they taste and how it [all] relates. Then they're also understanding the nurseries that they have when they first plant the seeds and moving into the units and watching them grow throughout the summer.

I would like to build this out. We're marching towards that we're definitely setting stones in place for the students to have a year-round apprenticeship where they can maintain the units and go through multiple harvests throughout the year and be able to see different types of vegetables grow. And they can take these things with them once they finish their harvest cycle.

What do you hope that they take away from participating in these labs and classes with you?

First, I want to expose them to what's out there. And what healthy eating is, what can be applied using STEM beyond just building bridges and buildings. If you ask what an engineer does, that's usually what someone will tell you. But it’s a wide range. So that exposure piece.

The second one is awareness. The awareness of what they're eating, and how it impacts their bodies, as well as what type of things that they can do in the future from a career standpoint, and how it relates to what they're learning now. And then lastly, a behavioral change and empowering them to have the choice of that change. So, want[ing] to change what you're eating, the frequency of what you're eating, but also actively seeking out those science and mathematics courses in school and looking at universities that offer engineering and other STEM-focused degrees to pursue those types of careers.


Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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