Meet the FarmBot: New From the Westminster Steam-Lab

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Sayre Boutte

The FarmBot is a mysterious addition to the Westminster campus, and many people wonder why it is there. Well, the truth is, it’s very simple. The creation is a project that the Middle School chose to invest in. The robot comes from the FarmBot Genesis company, which designed the machine and then sends the materials and instructions to the buyer for usage. The company is also open-source, meaning they offer the designs online to anyone who wants them. Unfortunately, the Innovation Lab was barely started on the project when we began quarantine due to COVID-19. 

The robot has appeared in the courtyard due to the construction going on near the upper circle at Clarkson. The Middle School garden used to be nearby, but the gardeners at Westminster had to accept the new changes. Joey Jarrel, a Middle School science teacher, the man behind the whole operation, says that the new location was a compromise. “We were facing the reality that the garden we did have up near the parking deck was going away and we were moving over to summer camp where we have our garden now,” says Jarrell. “But the big thing we wanted to do was figure out some way to, in a way, bring the growing of food and stuff like this back onto this side of the campus where people can see it we thought the FarmBot was a great opportunity to do that while also providing curricular connections with a number of different classes.” The project was a great way to bring together all different types of students interested in totally different topics, and getting them to put their hard work into one project. “We thought it was a great opportunity for a meeting of steam-esque, steamy sort of stuff and agriculture and gardening,” Jarrel adds.

At the beginning of 2019, the Middle School got a grant from the Upper School and used the money to invest in the robot. The materials arrived at the beginning of 2020, and the Dirtcatz got started right away with building a garden bed to eventually place the plants in. The coding classes have also been making sure the robot is self-sufficient. “It wasn’t really until this year that we’ve gotten the chance to get some of the tweaks worked out.” says Jarrel,  “It’s kind of a tinkerer’s delight.” 

One purpose of the FarmBot is to get students interested in plants and to show them how food can be grown away from farms. Of course, the added benefit of some fresh food is not unwelcome. As of now, the bed is growing Swiss chard and kohlrabi. Later in the spring, there is to be a greater variety of plants growing as well. Having bought the open-source plans, the school could theoretically build another robot. In fact, we would only need the materials. The idea of a more permanent, in-ground garden bed has also come up. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the FarmBot less popular and less used than it would have been if there were more opportunities to see how it worked. However, Jarrel is still holding out hope for interest next year. “I think right now we are, I mean, it’s really tough right now because we have a lot of teachers who might be interested in trying something different, it’s just finding the bandwidth for it,” he says, and also adds that COVID- 19 has made it harder with social distancing protocols. In conclusion, things have been slow with the robot. Like everything in the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been harder to build buzz about the robot and harder to get people interested. The FarmBot will likely fulfill its purpose in due time.