Sustainability Students Give it a Grow and Share the Fruits of Their Labor

The geodesic dome-shaped greenhouse — or geodome — that sits behind Gilman’s athletic fields was built in 2017 by a sustainability-focused club whose members eventually graduated and were not immediately replaced by younger students. The dome hasn’t been actively used the past few years. That changed in the spring of 2021.

Cole Randall ’23 loves engineering, and Aman Garg ’24 was interested in using algae for carbon capture. Together, they wanted to revive use of the greenhouse, and proposed their idea to environmental sustainability teacher Tim Lauer, who now serves as faculty advisor for the yet-to-be-named club. Aaron Kantsevoy ’23, who had been interested in aquaponics, a system that marries the ideas of aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (growing plants in water instead of soil), joined the pair as things got off the ground.

Six fish now live in the geodome. The idea is that the waste produced by the fish feeds the plants and algae; the plants then clean the water for the fish; and so on. “We grew this system that simultaneously works on both projects,” Garg said, referring to the algae-carbon effort as well as the goal to grow food.

The students have divided responsibilities according to their unique abilities.

“My role in the club is to handle all mechanical engineering tasks,” Randall said. “I fixed the filter when it broke, repaired the roof when a panel collapsed, buried our wiring underground, and will ultimately be responsible for the construction of a steel containment chamber to retain algae as it is carbonized for carbon fiber manufacturing.”

Kantsevoy is using a 3D printer to create adaptors, which will accommodate a yield of lettuce. “Combining tech and farming is really interesting,” he said.

Garg handles most administrative tasks, like writing the grant proposal to gain the funds needed to get the endeavor going, as well as the algae portion of the project. He also helped to set up and maintain the aquaponics system.

The project has been ripe with lessons not only about crop production but also about collaboration. “I learned a lot about sustainable agriculture,” Kantsevoy said. “And about teamwork and working closely with my two partners and with Gilman.”

“I have learned about how greenhouse technology can help save our planet,” Randall said. “This project has also highlighted the importance of communication.”

The club has run into some obstacles along the way. In the heat of last summer, the greenhouse was too hot for tomatoes to pollinate and grow, so they have plans for next summer to better cool the geodome.

So far, the group has harvested tomatoes and broccoli, with plans to add lettuce to the mix in a few weeks. “We were experimenting with a different growing system, a horizontal one, which gave us great crop density,” Garg said. “We wanted to put this to the limit and realized that we would end up with about 40 heads of lettuce all within the same week.”

“I was like why don’t we donate the harvest? We can’t eat 40 heads of lettuce,” Kantsevoy said. “We had wanted to do some community service with it.”

Garg noted that it is difficult to procure fresh produce in the winter, especially in food deserts in Baltimore. Donating their harvest would be a great opportunity to help the community and make a difference.

So they initiated a meeting with Donell Thompson ’91, Director of Service Learning, who put them in touch with the folks at the Donald Bentley Food Pantry, an organization whose mission is to provide for those experiencing food insecurity in Baltimore, named after alumnus Donald Bentley ’88. Gilman holds food drives throughout the year for the pantry.

In addition to donating the harvest to the pantry, the group is looking for ways to share the project with Middle Grades Partnership (MGP) and Bridges, both Gilman-partnered programs that work with Baltimore City Public School students.

“I believe that learning how to grow plants is conducive to growing as a person,” Garg said. “It actually teaches us about the Gilman Five in a very practical way: The plants reward respect, excellence, integrity, honor, and humility, and will do the opposite in any other case.”