Kailee Mitsuyasu, 15, lives in Hawaii, a verdant island
state that doesn’t grow enough food to feed its 1.4 million people.
About 90 percent of Hawaii’s food is imported, according to state estimates.
If a natural disaster or global event disrupted the planes and ships that
deliver goods to Hawaii, its people would have only enough food to live for 10
days, said Mitsuyasu, a sophomore at Mid-Pacific Institute, a PK-12 college prep
school in Manoa Valley, near Honolulu.
“The main factor of why we have such bad food security is because we have
such little space with so many people!” Mitsuyasu said.
So last year Mitsuyasu and four of her freshmen classmates set out to find
ways to make Hawaii less dependent on the outside world for its food. They won
first place in the MPX Hydroponic Gardening Competition at their school. MPX —
Exploratory Program — is a project-based learning program that integrates
English, history and STEM into
Cultivating plants without soil
The students researched hydroponics — the process of growing plants without
soil by using sand, gravel or liquid with added nutrients. They designed and
built a hydroponic structure and then planted vegetables.
“Hydroponics allowed us to utilize vertical gardening,” she said. “If you
were to plant in soil, you would only have as much space as you have surface
area. With vertical gardening, you can create a structure that allows you to
create multiple levels you can use to plant in.”
When their crop was ready, the students used their harvest to prepare a meal.
The menu, which could rival any top restaurant, featured Mediterranean quinoa
salad with tomatoes, bell peppers and cilantro garnished with feta cheese, as
well as a spicy citrus-herb marinated chicken on a bed of arugula and red sails
salad, drizzled with a chili-lime dressing.
Taking charge of learning
The MPX program uses a project-based
learning approach, which allows students to take charge of their own
learning. There are no textbooks and no tests. Students learn from doing.
“In the traditional classroom, you would walk in, sit down and listen to a
teacher give a lecture or presentation about the topic while you take notes.
Then at the end you would have a test to prove you learned all the necessary
requirements,” Mitsuyasu said.
“In the MPX program, we are given a topic to research, and we conduct the
research ourselves. The teacher would give us the source of information —
website, picture or video — and then it would be up to us to take good notes to
produce a final product.”
For the hydroponic project, teachers guided students through the process of
building a hydroponic system, growing food and cooking. Students used iPads to
research the essential nutrients plants require and to design their structure,
The students also learned things like problem solving, collaboration,
cooking, time management and responsibility, she said. And they discovered that
expectations and reality often are two very different things.
“We had a set idea of what was supposed to happen, and we planned everything
out accordingly, but not everything went the way we thought it would go,”
Back to the drawing board
For instance, they had calculated the measurements and materials they needed
to build their hydroponic system, but halfway through the construction process,
they discovered that the framework wasn’t sturdy enough to support the weight of
the water used in hydroponics.
“So we had to be quick problem solvers,” she said. By adding an extra piece
of wood to the back of the frame in an angled position, their structure became
strong enough to support the weight of the water.
The all-girl team worked closely together and fulfilled specific roles.
Mitsuyasu served as group leader and contractor. Mahina Smith was the architect,
grower and builder; Kendall Murphy was the culinary expert; Cami Kai was the
plant expert, grower and builder; and Bailey Lum was the documentarian.
“Though we all had assigned jobs and we introduced ourselves by our job
titles, we all knew each other’s job and helped each other out,” Mitsuyasu said.
“For example, when building, we didn't let two people put the system together
themselves — we all pitched in and helped to build it.”
Learning to collaborate
Teacher Gregg Kaneko said Mitsuyasu’s group was extremely successful. “They
were very hard workers and dedicated to producing high-quality work,” he said.
“It was funny because I purposely assign very little homework, but this group
spent countless hours outside of class working on their project. Their attention
to detail is awesome.”
That’s not to say there weren’t rough patches, Kaneko said. They actually got
off to a rough start because the girls weren’t working well together.
“I always tell students in leadership positions that there’s a fine line
between being bossy and being a good leader,” he said. “Kailee was on the far
end of bossy and really struggled with learning how to be a good leader. She
felt she had to prove herself to her group and was pretty overbearing.”
But by midyear, the girls were collaborating well. Much of that had to do
with Mitsuyasu’s “profound transformation,” Kaneko said. She was able to step
back and absorb feedback from teachers and peers and change her leadership
style, he said.
“She realized that she shouldn’t have to prove herself to anyone but
herself,” he said. “She worked hard and today she is a very different, much more
Mitsuyasu said she’s interested in becoming an architect and engineer based
on the problem-solving she practiced during the hydroponic project.
“I loved the creativity I was given when designing the hydroponic system,”
Mitsuyasu will be one of four students sharing her story during the ISTE
STEMprenuers on Wednesday, Oct. 22.
Tim Christie is a freelance writer from Eugene,