By Tiffany Whitfield

During the summer of 2023, Old Dominion University Biological Sciences Professor Lisa Horth took time to help those in need in the Hampton Roads community. At Teens with a Purpose, located in Downtown Norfolk, Horth introduced staff and teenagers to gardening and some new technological ways to plant more produce thanks to a science grant from NASA or Virginia Space Grant Consortium.

Horth’s grant titled “Veterans in Biology and Engineering (VIBE) Technical Training and Service Learning” intends to help educate people in the community about using hydroponics to grow food in a new way. Hydroponics is a technique of growing plants in water instead of using soil. Horth, along with co-pirinicpal investigators Associate Professor Orlando Ayala and Undergraduate Chief Departmental Advisor Kim Bullington, both from the Batten College of Engineering and Technology as well as one of Horth’s undergraduate students, Austin Jameson worked with the nonprofit group to plant and grow produce.

Helping those in need is a passion for Horth. “Education can be life-changing, especially for individuals born into challenging socioeconomic environments,” said Horth. “Learning how to grow food hydroponically is fun and has the potential to be used as a step toward economic independence.” 

Using her knowledge in hydroponics means a lot to Horth because this was something passed down to her by her grandmother. “My grandma taught me how to grow plants from cuttings and I will never forget that experience,” said Horth. “I hope we can provide experiences for youths in Teens with a Purpose that they remember for decades to come, as well.”

The process by which fresh fruit and produce grow in hydroponics is much faster than traditional planting. “Hydroponic strawberries look pretty when they grow, taste great, and are quicker to grow than fruits on soil-based plants,” said Horth. “Hydroponic growing provides for plant-based education (e.g. berry plants can have long roots in hydroponic systems) as well as nutritious, pesticide-free food.” 

Jameson made time to help the staff and young people at Teens with a Purpose while completing his Bachelor of Science in marine biology this August. “I got involved with Teens with a Purpose after being in Dr. Horths lab for almost two years,” said Jameson. “Receiving the space grant to be able to educate people about hydroponics has been a wonderful experience.”   

“We took some plants that we grew hydroponically for them to plant in both the garden and their hydroponics system,” said Jameson. “We then taught them about the nutritional value of many of the plants, different ways hydroponics can be used, and how to use their hydroponics system more efficiently,” said Jameson.

As part of the grant, Associate Professor Ayala took part in teaching students about the engineering side. He taught them about 3D printing and how it can be used in hydroponics as well as other uses and gave them a guided tour of the ODU Maker Space.  

The Teens with a Purpose have a community garden that they manage. The team of scientists taught the students and staff how to plant basil, sunflowers, peppers, tomatoes, peas in the soil. “We also bought them gardening supplies, shovels, trowels, a specific pot that they wanted and soil enrichers for their soil garden,” said Horth.

As for Jameson, he is not leaving ODU just yet. “I will then be starting a Ph.D. program here at ODU in the fall of 2023.” He will continue to work with Horth as his graduate advisor at ODU.