Excitement, Education and Explosions!
Here at Robin Hills Farm, we’ve been putting down roots in Chelsea since 2014, and we feel so lucky to be part of such an amazing and close-knit little town. We’ve grown up and out quite a bit in these last three years, but we’ve also begun to grow into the community. Being a part of the local scene, bringing our tagline “experience your food” to the public at events like Sounds & Sights and Festival of Tables—this has been some of our most rewarding work, and this month’s Chelsea PTO Elementary Science Night was one of the most fun and exciting opportunities we’ve had yet!
When our education team arrived at the Washington Street Education Center to set up, the halls, classrooms and gym were a flurry of activity—carts flew by bearing angora bunnies, craft supplies and bone casts from the Chelsea Mammoth; volunteer coordinators in lab coats and sparkly green St. Paddy’s Day attire swept diligently from room to room; and folks of all ages scrambled to arrange their displays of scientific equipment (one table, from Meridian Mechatronics in Deerfield, even brought a telescope!). We found ourselves in good company of a wide range of local businesses, organizations, university departments and Scout troops, as well as some heavy hitters like NOAA and 4-H, all gathered in the great name of Science!
As for us, our education staff had decided to focus on the science of aquaponics. Some of you may have seen our Nelson & Pade aquaponics system in our greenhouse, which is one of our favorite demo areas on the farm. It is, however, not the most convenient to transport, so we stuck with Fishnu the Fearless Betta and our portable classroom-size AquaFarm. For those of you who are unfamiliar with aquaponics, check out this handy poster we had on hand for the night!
Aquaponics at Work
Fish waste is broken down by microbes into nitrates, a key plant nutrient. This nitrate-infused water is cycled through the root zone of the soil-free plants (in this case, on top of the tank), which act as a biofilter to remove nutrients and other compounds that otherwise build up and cause harm to fish.
Easy enough, right? Our next challenge, however, was to translate this cycle into two simple stations that could quickly and effectively get the night’s continuously rotating crowd of 300-some kids and parents excited about aquaponics, but more importantly, talk about science in general. And, surrounded by other stations that could show you a photo of your eardrum from Ascent Audiology & Hearing in Chelsea or move objects hands-free with static electricity from the Chelsea area Girl Scouts, we had to come up with something equally cool!
Ben, our Education Director, chose to focus on the two stages in the cycle that represent the system’s crucial points of change: that is, the chemical reaction that converts fish waste to plant nutrients, and the active extraction and filtering of water by the plants.
Station 1 was the good ol’ standby of placing celery and Napa cabbage leaves in water tinted with a high concentration of food coloring. Though we prefer, here at Robin Hills Farm, for the colors of our food to come from vitamins and minerals rather than dye, there’s no better way than this classic experiment to highlight the vertical channels (called xylem) that draw water upward through plants, from root through stem to leaves. Even the tallest, hundred-foot-tall tree (we told our young audience) is lined with these drinking straw-like tubes!
In Station 2, we staged one of our favorite “science tricks,” combining three top-secret solutions in test tubes for a striking chemical reaction: the clear aqueous solutions, once combined and given time to react, will suddenly turn a deep purple! Though difficult to time, this trick is a winner with all ages (including our education team staff) and a highly engaging way to illustrate how invisible chemical interactions cause changes in our world.
The high point of the night arrived with a bang—quite literally, as a team of volunteer scientists filled an aluminum trash can with ping pong balls and demonstrated to the enraptured crowd how a little hot water and liquid nitrogen can cause a big explosion. Though the event carried on for half an hour or so after this climactic display, and we brought the good word of aquaponics to several more families, we all seemed to share a sense of winding down, as underfoot children chased down and collected the 1,500 ping pong balls that had, for a moment, learned to fly. The crowd petered out, we packed up Fishnu and our accoutrements, and the Washington Street Education Center grew quiet once more.
Until next time! A big thanks to the Chelsea PTO for inviting us to join the explosive and highly educational fun! We love making learning exciting, and can’t wait for more opportunities within the Chelsea community.