The Electric Garden : creating sustainable outcomes with digital technologies

Issue: Volume 99, Number 7

Posted: 18 May 2020
Reference #: 1HA7WZ

A resource that combines gardening and digital technology is lowering the barriers for teachers as they begin to implement the new Digital Technologies and Hangarau Matihiko (DT&HM) curriculum content.

Mariam and Malachi from Room 17 at Owairaka Primary School check out the school vegie patch with the Electric Garden in the plot.

Mariam and Malachi from Room 17 at Owairaka Primary School check out the school vegetable patch with the Electric Garden in the plot.

The Electric Garden programme is a hands-on, IoT (Internet of Things) solution to support schools delivering the new curriculum, which became compulsory at the beginning of the year. 

The programme mixes the art of growing food with computer programming and digital technologies. Students install their Electric Garden soil sensor in the school vegetable garden and can view and monitor real-time data showing soil temperature, soil moisture, air humidity, air temperature and the amount of light. The resource uses Spark’s LoRaWAN™ or Cat M1 IoT networks for connectivity.

Cross-curricula resource

Founded by Digital Future Aotearoa, a charitable trust, the Electric Garden aims to embed the use of technology to create digital citizens and lead to more sustainable outcomes. The Trust partnered with Spark Foundation in 2018 to trial the programme in 75 schools in Canterbury and Otago. Digital Future Aotearoa general manager Michael Trengrove says he was pleasantly surprised by feedback from teachers.

“They responded, ‘yes it’s digital, but it’s truly cross-curricula’ and that was quite a surprise to us because we’re a digital Trust which aims to deliver high quality and accessible digital technology education. 

“They were using it at all different times of the day... in science, maths and the environment. One example was testing the capacity of different soil types to absorb water,” he says.

Unlocking curriculum content

Michael says that while the aim is for the Electric Garden to be meaningful and authentic for children, they won’t be able to access the opportunities and learning if their teachers don’t have the confidence or capability with digital technology.

“We have found that gardening really lowers the barriers, lowers the fear factor and it’s a great opportunity for teachers to pick something up that they are already comfortable with – gardening – and to begin unlocking the doors into the new curriculum content for their kids.

“Teachers like the authenticity and that it’s hands on. A lot of technology can feature quite abstract ideas and concepts and we’re trying to find a way to make those concepts come alive through real-world applications as they would be in industry,” says Michael.

Coding and data

Initially the Electric Garden aimed to teach how to code using concepts from the garden and environment, but as the tools progressed and improved, data has become a more central focus, explains Michael.

“We strongly believe that data literacy is becoming increasingly important and that’s not just for data scientists but for everyone who is leaving school and beginning their careers. 

“At times the kids will be coding graphs using data from their own garden. So it has that real-world application – they know their soil, they planted and weeded it, put the soil sensors in there. 

“Through the programme they begin to understand how the sensors read data from the soil and they understand the flow of that data – where does it go? Where’s it stored? Who owns it? How do I access it? Can anyone else access it? Is it secure? 

“With that sense of ownership and that bigger picture of the data flow, the penny really drops for the students,” says Michael.

Holistic approach

The Electric Garden has taken a holistic approach. Students log in to the online Electric Garden, where there are a series of interactive exercises. Each exercise has classroom components and an outdoor component.

“To start with we’re just looking at the environment – where’s the garden? What’s around it? How can they identify other things in the environment they can care for? We have worked with partners to bring in a Te Ao Māori worldview with the connection with the land. Then we get to the gardening and installing the sensors but at the same time we’re also learning about health and wellbeing – the difference between processed and whole foods. 

“As they get into it, they might be pulling data from the NIWA website for their local area and then pull their own data from the Electric Garden and then using Python code, they will run an analysis comparing the two sets of data and look at the differences because they are coding graphs and then they can have a discussion about why it’s different,“ he says.

Curriculum resources

Just before the Covid-19 lockdown, the Trust got some funding from the Ministry of Education to build a small team to focus on extending the online lessons. Michael says a key goal was to create engaging lessons and useful teacher resources designed to enhance the new DT&HM curriculum content, while students also tended to their school vegetable patch.

“The Electric Garden isn’t just a hardware kit, but it gives teachers everything they need to organise themselves through an online learning platform. It’s got authentic inquiry-based online student projects, which then allow students to monitor, capture and journal the progress of their gardens and the events that happen which have some quite measurable outcomes,” he says.

At the grassroots

Kora, Natasha and Olivia from Knights Stream School proudly show off a monster head of broccoli grown in the school's new tunnel house.

Kora, Natasha and Olivia from Knights Stream School proudly show off a monster head of broccoli grown in the school's new tunnel house.

Knights Stream School, Halswell, Christchurch opened its doors at the beginning of 2019, and during the year, with a local Community Board grant, parents and teachers built a tunnel house for a school garden. The Electric Garden fitted with the school’s vision of providing students with authentic contexts for learning about digital technology and sustainability, explains Year 5–6 teacher Catherine MacKenzie.

“We’ve got two Electric Garden units, which is useful because we can have one in our tunnel house and one outside as a control so we can make comparisons about the data. The unit measures temperature, light and soil moisture and students can make connections between these and the growth rate of our plants,” she says.

Sustainability and health

As well as its focus on digital technologies, the Electric Garden resource teaches students about sustainability, health and wellbeing.

“The children can monitor and see what’s happening in the garden. Electric Garden teaches about the use of water. We can use the optimal amount for plant growth, and we can produce the best yields from our garden by providing the best conditions for growing, and I think that’s really tangible when the children can see that in action.

“Plants have been donated by families and teachers and we have grown a range of things like cherry tomatoes, broccoli, beans – the cherry tomatoes don’t last long. It gives the opportunity for students to try new foods they haven’t tried before. We also hope to provide more opportunities for our students to cook with the food we produce. That will fit well with promoting health and healthy eating,” says Catherine.

User-friendly resources

Catherine says that the Electric Garden resources are so well thought out and user-friendly that last year a small group of students from the school’s enthusiastic Enviro group helped teach her class the introductory lessons about the Electric Garden.

Electric gardening is fun for  Ismail and Aoibheann.

Electric gardening is fun for Ismail and Aoibheann.

“That empowered them and gave them ownership over the project. The resources are really easy to follow – you don’t need to be a computer science expert, but it does teach you a lot about the computer science in the background and that’s really what we’ve been focusing on. 

Real-world outcomes

“Electric Garden is helping us implement the digital technology curriculum because it provides that authentic context and hands-on opportunity to learn about the progress outcomes in the curriculum. At Year 5–6 level, students start to look at inputs and outputs and software and hardware, creating digital outcomes and it just gives them a real hands-on opportunity to do those things,” says Catherine.

The students plan to create prototype models of the Electric Garden and watering systems using the school’s robotics resources. Catherine says the Enviro group has also begun to create a school garden website. 

“We’d like to share the data we are collecting with our community because one of our goals is to make it more of a community-based garden. Online data will provide a link to the real-time data and that’s one way our community will be able to see what’s happening if they are involved in helping out in the garden,” says Catherine.


Look what we grew! Philippa, Platon, Malachi and Mariam are delighted with their gardening efforts.

Look what we grew! Philippa, Platon, Malachi and Mariam are delighted with their gardening efforts.

Tamariki kōrero

Q: What have you learned through the Electric Garden?

A: I learnt that the Electric Garden sensor probe goes into the ground in your garden and measures the temperature and moisture in the soil. It helps us to know what plants will grow well in drier or wetter soil. We want the plants to grow well and they’ll taste better too. 

Q: What do you like the most about working with the Electric Garden? Why? 

A: I like that the Electric Garden can tell us what’s happening in the soil and how it works. It’s great for gardeners! 

Leo, Year 6

Q: What have you learned through the Electric Garden? 

A: I have learnt that the Electric Garden measures the moisture and heat in the soil.

Q: What do you like the most about working with the Electric Garden? Why?  

A: My favourite part about the Electric Garden and growing food with it is that it helps our food grow even better by measuring the soil moisture and temperature and letting us know if we need to water it more or less and it’s good for the environment so we don’t waste water by over-watering the plants.

Natasha Year 6

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BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 1:50 PM, 18 May 2020

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