After undergoing several dynamic changes over the last year, the College of Life Sciences Greenhouse—a hidden gem—is primed to enable students and faculty to innovate sustainable practices and impact global nutrition. The new greenhouse director, Dr. Matt Arrington, has worked hard to make the greenhouse the ideal setting for hands-on learning and inspired research. His vision is to provide “enough open space where students can have [an] innovative flow of ideas and create their own projects.” Students are encouraged to brainstorm ideas and then use greenhouse resources to carry them out.
“Hands-on learning is so critical,” Arrington says. “The muscle memory of using our brain and our hands helps the concept hit home and stick with us. Instead of memorizing facts and preparing for quizzes, we’re creating experiences that generate lasting memory.” Arrington explains that it is all about “critical thinking—the ability to problem solve through issues that arrive in the environment.”
RESEARCH WITH A GLOBAL IMPACT
Multiple research studies and experimental projects are currently underway at the greenhouse, including breeding high-protein quinoa for new climates, using light to influence the flavor of produce, and designing sustainable gardens for people in Uganda.
“Having the greenhouse is really indispensable,” says Dr. Rick Jellen, associate dean and professor of genetics. “It lets us dramatically expand the number of students and the quality of our research.”
For example, students and faculty developed a hydroponic lab to research the most effective method to grow plants in water rather than soil. With this technological improvement, people in developing countries, such as Uganda, can grow food despite harsh drought conditions. The students are also exploring ways to grow crops that provide enough calories and the right nutrition for the growing population. Solving these real-world problems helps fulfill the vision of the greenhouse.
Nathan Grooms (’24), a prospective student planning to pursue a degree in plant and landscape systems, is helping with the hydroponics research. “When we talk about food security and making sure that people worldwide have enough to eat, that’s what I’ve been learning and exploring in order to make it a reality,” Grooms says.
Additionally, Jellen is supervising a project focused on ways to make urban environments more productive for feeding people. Students are contributing by improving the nutritional value of quinoa. “This is a natural and important part of the kind of research we’re doing to impact the world and our communities here at BYU,” Jellen says.
Arrington is also working to create more opportunities for development by establishing a student plant shop. Students will have the opportunity to sell the plants they maintain for profit. The money earned will go back to the students to pay for their mentored learning courses and time invested in running the shop. In addition, faculty will teach skills in marketing, price-fixing, analyzing margins in the industry, evaluating consumer preference, and introducing wholesale plants.
One of Arrington’s overarching goals is to encourage more faculty from diverse programs to utilize the greenhouse. Students from the College of Life Sciences are currently working in the experiential lab with engineering faculty to build a controlled beehive outfitted with cameras and a one-way glass to track bee movement. In addition, art classes host field trips to the greenhouse to create botanical sketches.
Arrington wants the greenhouse to be an interdisciplinary space that enhances education across all fields of study. He sees it as an opportunity that “both invigorates the ability to think creatively, but also gets [students] practice in communicating with people who think very differently.”
Arrington says the greenhouse doors are open to everyone who wants to enjoy the space—no invitation required. “The greenhouse is an inviting space where people can explore, walk around unguided, see what we have going on, and ask questions,” he explains.
According to Arrington, the human environment is one of the main differences between the BYU Life Sciences Greenhouse and other greenhouses. The greenhouse is more than just a classroom or a workspace; it is a place where people want to be. It truly is a hidden gem of campus.
"It's important to me to use sustainable practices because we've been asked to be stewards of the earth," Arrington says. "Part of being stewards of our environment is putting in the effort, and the other part is learning." Through immersing students in sustainable practices, Arrington hopes to provide them with experience to steer the industry toward similar practices as they enter the field.
Robot mowers, a viable option during drought
As drought conditions increase, green lawns are harder to maintain. Faculty from the Department of Plant and Wildlife Sciences are testing whether robot mowers offer a viable option to increase water efficiency. While traditional mowers cut approximately a third off the top of the grass each week, robot mowers remove only a small fraction of the grass blade each day. Researchers are evaluating the water efficiency of the robot mower as it removes less water from each blade of grass.
Fighting malnutrition with aquaponics
Addressing the needs of developing countries, students and faculty from several departments in the College of Life Sciences are working together to create a sustainable aquaponics pond that can thrive in drought conditions while addressing the community’s nutritional needs. To ensure it is sustainable for the area, crops are planted in recycled materials on a pond with tilapia fish which provide a natural fertilizer. One research group is focused on developing a balanced ecosystem with the most productive ratio of fish to plants for the pond size. A second
research group is addressing malnutrition by creating crop recipes containing plants that grow well in the ecosystem and provide the much-needed nutrients. Teams are working with a school in Uganda to create the tilapia ponds. They will implement the crop recipes this summer.
Growing flavor in light
Sun-kissed tomatoes and strawberries taste of summer, but how do you get the same flavor from crops grown in a greenhouse? Students are testing how changing the color of light to make “light recipes” can alter the flavor of produce. Cherry tomatoes can taste acidic when grown under one type of light and sweet under another. Strawberries can be syrupy sweet or have an earthy, farmer’s market flavor—all depending on the color of the light they are grown under.