Solar/IoT Garden

May 01, 2019

As part of Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts (PHSSA) charter, sustainability was established as a core focus of the schools education mission. All grade levels at PHSSA make use of curriculum that involves use of gardens on site at PHSSA. Formerly, the 5th grade garden was the rain garden, that made use of water quality monitoring and instrumentation in coordination with a funded local researcher. However, grant support that made water quality monitoring possible no longer exists and the environmental science curriculum associated with the 5th grade garden is no longer taught. Instead, students now only manage the space during community involvement activities, subject to expected activities such as removing weeds. Previous learning activities included linking experiences with Reedy creek, chemistry, and science topics that made use of monitoring quantifiable measures such as: pH, nitrate-phosphate concentration, biological oxygen demand and coliform presence. PHSSA faculty desired a high level of sustainability focused curriculum to fill this void. Richmond Public School (RPS) efforts to address gaps included embracing dissemination of technology in an activity known as an Hour of code, where RPS instructional technology resource teachers (ITRT) come to PHSSA and demonstrate how to utilize activities from a website known as tynker. Tynker makes use of drag and drop graphical user interfaces, allowing students to partake in game like activities. These experiences, though likened too, are far from the practices of computer coding that involves trouble shooting errors and applications to address real world problems.

Our project connects-the-dots among gaps with topics such as green building, systems and sustainability at PHSSA, already known for maintaining a strong environmental literacy curriculum. The average United States and global citizen in 2018, utilized 310 million and 80 million Btus of primary energy respectively. At present all forms of renewable energy account for only 5% of electricity generation around the world, yet solar energy density at the surface of the Earth is approximately 1,000 W/m2, far from being fully utilized. Global internet of things markets ($151 billion) grew by over 30% in 2017 and are estimated to reach $1.2 trillion by 2022. Our project utilizes community and student interest, extending focus on sustainability and garden curriculum, towards deepening students exposure to these important technology concepts early in education paths while maintaining the high quality standard of relating education to relevant environmental science topics.

Over several years time, we have built a solar garden installation (project) with incorporated internet of things (IoT) concepts onsite of PHSSA. The project includes modifiable flexibility that links concepts in a systems fashion. The design incorporates solar energy and open source information technology while transforming an unused black top surface. The design was iterated with input from students and parents subject to volunteer time, a modest budget, and construction limitations. Because PHSSA is the only primary charter school in Virginia, the competitive nature of the school requires that parents be involved with school activities in a strong community centric culture. Long term community engagement was built into the project by identifying three topics, that establish communicating information with flyers and feedback from stakeholders in public meetings. Future actions will involve larger dissemination efforts including sharing project materials/costs lists, education modules and testing related education that links to Virginia Standards of Learning.

This project encourages sustainability in three ways. The first is by the development of curriculum that makes use of the progressive application of Standards of Learning, in a setting where technology interfaces with the environment. There are many sustainability concepts that can be taught by making use of the project (e.g., food, water, and energy relationships). The second contribution to sustainability involves community and school stakeholders. Resources were prepared for the community to inform decisions related to green building and the project. Finally, the resultant projects installation (i.e. a raised bed garden) is stand alone and disconnected from the grid and water infrastructure. The installation makes use of solar radiation for power and collects rain water for the purpose of growing food, enhancing the sustainability of the space that was transformed from unutilized blacktop.

PHSSA has documented the project during it lifecycle while making plans to quantify future impacts. The project team members are working with PHSSA educators to develop pre and post test quantification of standards of learning (SOLs) that can be used with the project (see project images). The project can also be used in coordination with higher education professionals, therefore having an impact and potentially inspiring k-5 students, parents, and community members in lifelong science technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) topics. This year (2019) marks the successful installation of the project and coordination of how to quantify long term impacts. We anticipate the installation will be used as a mainstay education resource, therefore supporting the sustainability of education at PHSSA. In order to perpetuate the outcomes of the project and maintain related efforts, plants will be grown year round. Further, each IoT component of the project has its own education module that will be shared on a yet to be determined electronic resource (see all submission details). Because the project involves installation of a built structure on school grounds, the project is intended to be a permanent part of garden based curriculum at PHSSA. The project also fills a gap in an established curriculum when funding and another partner left the PHSSA community.

The described project is based on the imagination and desires of the PHSSA community. All built materials and developed technology were inspired by student and community member requests. The resultant installation involved three years of review with local regulators, school officials, and implementation with available volunteers to actually make it happen. Students incorporated art and a mentor made use of many affordable information technologies in a synergistic way. The project therefore is ultimately unique with artistic incorporation from involved students and community (see submission details). The entire project was developed by students, including the project mentor that studied how to teach green topics and develop green schools. Project volunteers were brought together over may years time to refine and implement a design. Based on community dissemination, PHSSA won anonymous support from a local entrepreneur to build an outdoor learning facility. A ribbon cutting ceremony in coordination with RPS leadership and members of the PHSSA community will be coordinated for the installation of the learning center and the Solar/IoT garden in the Spring of 2019.

Now that the installation is complete, focus in the future will be will be on finalizing implementation details, coordination of curriculum and on communication and assessment as future focuses. Means to communicate efforts will involve established resources identified in this submission. Community members inquired about the project while being undertaken. Initial communication were conducted on a FaceBook page. It was decided that three initial stakeholder meetings with supporting information will be used to incorporate greater community feedback (example flyer attached). Sustainability is central to charter PHSSA, therefore engaging community is critical to the implementation and this project and demonstrates how the PHSSA community is resilient, adopting to enhance education when previous utilized resources are no longer available.

The projects strengths lie in the communitys willingness to put in time to make it a success. Each member that has contributed, brought an area of expertise that was needed. Strength also lies in the flexibility of the potential of the project. The project is adaptable to the needs of both PHSSA, community and potential partnerships in the future. Furthering and strengthening the project in the future does not require intensive investment of resources, therefore making PHSSA and its charter mission to education more sustainable.

Establish a new means to teach at PHSSA by linking technology to gardening.


Students attended


Staff attended


Additional Volunteers attended


Students will be impacted this year

Intended impact of project

Reduced environmental impact

Impact of project

Educated on sustainable skills and practices
Educated on sustainability knowledge
Environmental restoration
Improved environmental & sustainability literacy
Beautification of school/site
Energy and/or water conservation
Waste reduction

More impact of project

Ultimately, this project establishes an affordable and PHSSA community centric approach to fill a charter mission gap. It was estimated that there are over 300 PHSSA students (with families) with a comparable number of wait listed students. Therefore, the success of PHSSA impacts a formidable portion of Richmond VA. The project can collect temperature and humidity, it is planned that energy collected from the solar panel will be tallied in the future. Over 60 ft2 of non-utilized black top surface was converted to a sustainable education space without requiring continual upkeep from a traditional school district system. Immediate next steps will involve stakeholder communications, linking VA SoLs to curriculum and validation of the projects installation. The mentor and school champion have selected two Standards of Learning (SoLs) and cross references them with next generation STEM standards (see example in submitted materials).
Project members have planned three stakeholder meetings to get input, address concerns and explore desired learning opportunities with the supporting community. The first flyer addressing concerns elicited from comments on a Facebook page is attached in the project submission. In this third year, project members have made contact with the schools board and has begun the process of exploring grant opportunities. The project mentor has made significant contact with experts in the areas that work in supporting industry/government (e.g. the Naval Research Lab, a local robotics start up, Intellibot, Google, VA legislature).