17:30 PM

From Green to Grown

Pitt Hydroponics helps to feed food deserts in Pittsburgh while creating community among its students

Pitt Hydroponics, a group of students from the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering who design innovative ways to grow plants, are helping to feed the Homewood community.

Leah Roth, a senior majoring in civil and environmental engineering and president of Pitt Hydroponics, always had an interest in sustainability, but wasn’t familiar with hydroponic gardening until a trip to Disney World in high school. The resort in Orlando, Florida is home to 2.5 million square feet of active greenhouses and sustainable gardening practices. Visitors can tour the site on the “Living with the Land” via boat. Like Roth, most students who join Pitt Hydroponics aren’t too familiar with the practice at first, but use it as a way to practice skills they learn at the Swanson School.

“It’s a great club because I can take what I learn in the classroom and actually apply it,” Roth said. “I’m not just learning, but advocating for my passion for sustainability.” 

Students meet in a garage around the corner of the cafe every Sunday to work on their current growing system. Each year presents a new learning curve and set of challenges for Pitt Hydroponics – even the garage itself. With little sunlight and air circulation in the space, the group has to find realistic and affordable solutions to ensure the growth of the plants. Currently, students are testing a nutrient film technique (NFT) system – placing plants in a sloped tray and recirculating the water. 

Tess Harper, a junior majoring in civil and environmental engineering, said challenges are a highlight because they foster a problem-solving environment for the group. 

Questions, potential solutions, and failures – especially – are encouraged. 

Pitt Hydroponics

“Everyone is positive here,” Roth said. “Mistakes are a good thing because that’s how you learn.” 

Harper and Roth said that other than the plants, informing and teaching is the biggest facet of the club. 

“My first year at Pitt was very isolated since it was online,” Harper said. “I didn’t know something like Pitt Hydroponics existed, and when I joined, I made friendships while also doing something that helped the community. It’s also just a very welcoming and friendly environment.”

Pitt Hydroponics is now focused on expansion – hoping to feed the Pitt community alongside areas like Homewood. 

“We want to make a community-wide impact,” Harper said.