Indoor Eden: Wheeling Woman teaches STEM with rods | News, Sports, Jobs


Photo by Nora Edinger Laurie Ruberg of Wheeling tends to Dipladenia, a tropical plant that she recently converted from a soil base to a water base. Hydroponics is Ruberg’s specialty. As part of her business PLANTS, LLC, she shares her knowledge at local schools, where her STEM classes aim to open up emerging career opportunities for local youth.

WHEELING – Laurie Ruberg had hustled, bringing her multitude of potted plants that were outside for the summer indoors as nights fell into the 40s, a temperature she said the tropics in particular do not like.

“I was looking at the weather and as long as the low was 51.53 it was fine,” Ruberg explained, gesturing to the plants now stationed in his Wheeling home. In addition to tropical plants such as palms, cacti and succulents were nested for the winter. “I love houseplants.”

Ruberg – who has a doctorate. in curriculum and teaching and researched and taught at the former Jesuit University of Wheeling and was a visiting professor at West Virginia University – did not use the word “love” lightly, as revealed it to a sunny spot right next to a stair landing.

There, a pink-flowering tropical called Dipladenia sat on a makeshift potting table. He was participating in one of Ruberg’s frequent experiments. The plant, a gift, was doing quite well in the soil, she said. But, could it do as well in, say, water? Ruberg – who has done this sort of thing before, so much that he could participate in a science lab exhibit on the path to education through his company PLANTS, LLC – suspected it.

So, with the soil freed from its roots, the Dipladenia was now in a pot filled with water and clay balls intended to help it stand.

This lot was in a plastic bucket and Ruberg was ready to install a pump to get air into the system. The tropical – an ever-flourishing one, according to Ruberg, is loved by Canadians who try to keep their homes alive through long winters – was now fully hydroponic.


The Dipladenia is actually just a larger version of a sort of hydroponic starter kit that Ruberg uses in PLANTS classes for students in Grades 4-8, she said. The mini model includes a styrofoam cup with drilled holes in the bottom, a piece of plant covered with the same mixture of water and clay granules and a plastic cup rim.

No pump is needed – aeration is achieved by pulling two straps of wire on either side of the inner cup, explained Ruberg, demonstrating by moving the inner cup up and down.

Children are technically supposed to air the plant this way once a day, she says with a smile. But, nearly a decade after introducing hydroponics technology to regional schools, she knows it’s just a suggestion.

“Kids love to get on with things,” Ruberg said of the in-person and online labs she has developed to introduce the possibility of a new kind of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) career to students. young people from the region. She also worked with the STEM Club at Wheeling Park High School. “We bring nature into the house… It’s just part of our genetic makeup. “

Ruberg suspects that young people involved in enrichment classes often do not realize how much science and math they are really oriented. But, as fun as the plant and water systems are, she said STEM is still here.

It is in the gloves that students use to avoid introducing bacteria that can destroy such confined systems, in monitoring nutrient levels and electrical conductivity of water, in setting up webcams to record plant growth.

“There is so much STEM learning in there,” Ruberg said. “It’s always an apprenticeship. It is always a challenge.


And, for some, it could possibly be a career, she added. “They don’t need to be a farmer,” she said, although this is a newly viable possibility even for the landless, as hydroponic farming practiced inside buildings and metal containers as large as railcars are beginning to supplement the soil products.

Students could, alternatively, be inspired to become an agricultural researcher, a chef growing his own vegetables on site, or even an environmental scientist using the same technology in a non-food way to extract toxins such as heavy metals from contaminated water. , she mentioned.

Hydroponics, a cultivation method that dates back to the ancient Egyptians planting herbs and greens in Nile water, has this kind of breadth and depth, Ruberg said. These plants can grow anytime of the year, use continuously recycled water, can only be fed with the nutrients they need, and ultimately help feed a growing world population while using less resources and less space.

Here and now, students working with Ruberg and his multitude of nonprofit partners – including Ohio County Extension Service, Grow Ohio Valley, and NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium – learn that the cultivation method can range from herbs to vegetables. greens in small full-farm kitchen systems, where plants such as lettuce grow on floating styrofoam rafts.

They also learn the economic and environmental realities of the larger end of this type of food production. An example? Ruberg spoke about a utility company in western Pennsylvania that decided to grow hydroponic tomatoes using the extra heat generated by its energy production.

The idea first worked, she said. The tomatoes were healthy and tasty enough to sell even before they were planted. But, there was not enough natural light to keep the system in the dark. A need for extensive artificial lighting – too expensive, ironically, even for a public service – ultimately shut down this operation.

Since hydroponics farms may also require fans, heaters, and aeration units – all consumers of electricity, Ruberg considers such experiences to be part of the hydroponics learning curve. But, she pointed to another operation in Cleveland that is working well – growing green vegetables and herbs on a commercial scale in the same location as the people who will eat them.

It’s an environmental victory given the low need for transportation and a culinary victory as fresh local vegetables are available year-round in an area that experiences severe winter conditions, she noted.

The Cleveland Farm operates in an urban center, but Ruberg said it wouldn’t really work in a town the size of Wheeling. That’s not to say regional entrepreneurs aren’t already tinkering with models that might, she added.

A Pennsylvania meat farm, she said, recently converted a single barn into a hydroponics site for herbs and salads. Both food streams are delivered to the same customers at the same time, adding a new source of income without increasing transportation costs, she said.

The kids at the Ohio County school – and 4-H participants, if Ruberg’s hopes come true – will they ever use what they learn today to push it back even further? agricultural envelope? May be. Already, Ruberg said, a handful of students she has worked with have chosen college majors for this purpose.

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