Iowa students build robot for garden project

DAVENPORT, Iowa — Davenport West High School students are building a robot to be used next spring in gardens at Buffalo Elementary School.

The “FarmBot” project is the brainchild of Buffalo Principal Heidi Gilliland as project-based learning that involves the technology students at Davenport West, the grade school students in Buffalo and the building trades students at Mid-City High School.

Ten garden plots are to be placed on the sunny south side of the elementary school, the Quad-City Times reported. Students in each grade will plant the gardens, with preparatory work completed before next spring.

The idea began in Buffalo as Gilliland and other officials sought an idea to supplement the new focus of the school: Science, technology, engineering, math, or STEM, with arts integration.

“We try to keep the kids engaged, and also to prepare the students for the future,” she said.

FarmBot came up as an idea that involves agriculture. It is online and the site is open-sourced, meaning it is freely available to anyone interested in the plans. The company is based in San Luis Obispo, California, and also offers kits for sale.

Gilliland pitched the concept to Smith at Davenport West and contacted Mid-City High about building the raised garden beds.

The robot under construction using a FarmBot kit was paid for with a $2,700 grant and will be used on one of the plots.

The plan is to use the robotic set-up on a garden bed, and have an identical control bed right next to it. Students will track the data to see what differences occur. If there is a big difference, the students can make a business plan, the principal said.

The hope is for all the gardens to provide a great deal of produce, and to bring Buffalo-based products to the Freight House Farmers Market in Davenport next summer, Gilliland said. Ideally, the FarmBot will be portable so it can be set up at the market, and the students can talk to the public about it and its effects on gardening.

Right now, the West High students are working on assembly and it’s a slow process. Track for the robot needs to be square, and level, and that’s just part of the challenge.

“We are trying to get the technical part right,” Smith said. “We’ve assembled this much two or three times already, trying to make sure it’s correct.”

The documentation that came with the program is OK, Smith said, but it is a new product, from a new company.

Nick Nahnybida, a 16-year-old junior, called the directions “sketchy.” He is in Smith’s class, called Computer Integrated Manufacturing, or CIM, part of the school’s Project Lead the Way curriculum and the capstone class for INSPIRE, the Advanced Manufacturing Career Pathway.

“They show you a picture of what it needs to be, and you figure out how to get there,” he said. “We do one thing, go back, and do it again. That’s the biggest challenge. It will be a while before we are totally done with this.”