#ProjectMartian: A Non-Profit’s Mission to Innovate and Feed During COVID19

Adding nutrients to the #zerodirt garden beds at Mezzacello resetting them after harvesting shallots and onions.

A Multipart PAST Foundation Story of Success

By Annalies Corbin and Jim Bruner

Life happens, yep it sure does.  We had such plans in 2020 at the PAST Innovation Lab and then like every other company, organization and community on the planet, 2020 brought us all a global pandemic instead.  Like our colleagues, we sat back and asked ourselves a series of questions as we shuffled.  1) Do we pivot or hold steady; 2) Do we alter our mission in the moment to simply survive; or 3) Is this a moment more than catastrophe – could we be sitting on the precipice of opportunity and not just potential collapse?  

The singular purpose was to help teachers move learning outside, into the real world and away from textbooks and sterile indoor labs.  And we hoped that along the way the students, especially those from urban areas, would see agriculture, ecology, botany, ornithology and many more “ologies” but also as great STEM careers.  

There was really no option here – we chose the path we advocate for daily with our students – it was time to innovate.  A much overused and little understood word in our collective nomenclature that PAST as an organization is uniquely positioned to accelerate.  Take our work in trying to change the face of modern agriculture as an apt case study.  

In 2014 via a Straight A Grant from the State of Ohio in partnership with several educational entities, schools and communities, PAST designed and launched 9 SOIL Labs (STEM Outdoor Innovation Labs) and 2 Field Stations across Ohio.  The singular purpose was to help teachers move learning outside, into the real world and away from textbooks and sterile indoor labs.  And we hoped that along the way the students, especially those from urban areas, would see agriculture, ecology, botany, ornithology and many more “ologies” as great STEM careers.  

Let’s show this town what STEM looks like when deployed to feed people and innovate an industry while simultaneously changing the face of agriculture and sustainability in urban settings.

Six years later, with thousands of students and teachers experiencing the collective set of SOIL Labs, we were ready to elevate the learning and the impact through a new vision – leading in our community through a multi-factored collective impact. This is a lot of words to say, “Le’ts show this town what STEM looks like when deployed to feed people and innovate an industry while simultaneously changing the face of agriculture and sustainability in urban settings.”  So we launched #ProjectMartian at the PAST Innovation Lab and our partner site, Mezzacello, a 21st Century Urban Farm, in Columbus Ohio.  

We knew we wanted to grow food as efficiently as possible, and we wanted to incorporate robotics.

We chose #ProjectMartian because we were influenced by Andy Weir’s book “The Martian” and we were impressed with how inspired our in-residence students from theMetro Early College High School students were in 2015 by the movie. We knew we wanted to grow food as efficiently as possible, and we wanted to incorporate robotics.  

Four learning labs (early college pathways) teamed up to build a mars simulation in our building’s warehouse. First, students used fire extinguishers to create clear box greenhouses with carbon dioxide atmospheres.  Next, research was conducted on how to maximize nutrients and healthy foods that would not only grow well, but also nourish the astronauts.  Each greenhouse also came with an 18 Kg (40 lb) bag of topsoil as the growth medium (dirt) which was found to be much too heavy.  This was the next problem for the students to solve. So much to discover – a perfect challenge for students.  The project was so inspiring to PAST’s Jim Bruner (and resident gentleman farmer at Mezzacello) as well as to the kids.

The Lessons from the SOIL Project

Image Gallery:

  • Top left: Adding nutrients to the filler material for the #ZeroDirt #ZeroWaste ProjectMartian garden beds.
  • Top right: Compost generation setup at PAST Foundation. This will be “Shipped” back to #ProjectMartian Outpost (AKA Mezzacello)
  • Middle left: Raw materials being “shipped” by Ford F-150 “rocket” 1 metric ton at a time to PAST for processing.
  • Middle right: #Project Martian outpost (AKA Mezzacello) reset and ready to begin the experiment.
  • Bottom left: Resetting a “lasagna Bed” #ZeroDirt #ZeroWaste< garden bed with reclaimed materials and compost from PAST Foundation.
  • Bottom right: How engaged and amazed the kids were by this process.

The kids were CAPTIVATED by the idea of giving and taking from nature rather than just taking and leaving the Earth barren.

Back in 2017, Jim had started exploring “Lasagna Gardens” which included a series of summer camps on the concept. The kids were CAPTIVATED by the idea of giving and taking from nature rather than just taking and leaving the Earth barren.  Kids around the globe are still advocating for change – they just need a little instruction on how they might get there.  We had big plans for the summer of 2020 and then COVID arrived and drove us all indoors; students transitioned to virtual learning and summer was all but cancelled. So the challenge was clear … it was time to innovate.  

 

Stay Tuned for the next chapter of #ProjectMartian…