ATLANTIC CITY — A major problem with school gardens is tending them over the summer.

PicoTurbine has a solution: with a vertical layered aquaponic garden about the size of a bookcase that can be built for about $200 and housed in a classroom.

“We’ve just started to try to get these into schools,” said Kiera Nissen, director of program development for the Kearny-based company, which offers STEAM-based curriculum, programs and materials.

STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts and math, an expansion of the old STEM — is one of the biggest buzzwords in education. Its goal is hands-on learning that lets students take what they’ve learned and build something with it or send it to a 3-D printer, the latest must-have school technology.

The garden was just one of the featured projects on the Digital Boulevard at the New Jersey Education Association’s annual convention Thursday at the Convention Center. Exhibits included robotics, Legos and electrical circuits students can build.

Looking for something a little more low-tech? You can build a structure with toothpicks and gumdrops, which many children attending the convention were happy to do.

“Too often we think of fun and learning as being mutually exclusive,” said Rebecca McLelland-Crawley, the gifted-and-talented facilitator in the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district, whose students wrote and received a grant application from the district’s Education Foundation to start a makerspace in the Community Middle School. “But doing the projects is what makes the learning stick.”

Her students write lessons that are shared with other students in the school. The makerspace project has taught them to write grants, communicate with adults and collaborate.

“This is a student-run project,” McLelland said.

Northfield teacher Kevin Jarrett has taken his students’ inventiveness to the next level, starting an after-school Entrepreneur Club to learn how to produce and market student creations.

Jarrett said the school is continuing to work with Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia on developing some of the items students created last year in a partnership to help make hospitals less scary for kids.

Field trips take learning outside the classroom, and the convention includes an aisle of options from the Liberty Museum in Union to Medieval Times.

Locally, Wheaton Village, the Tuckerton Seaport, the Bayshore Center at Bivalve and the Atlantic City Aquarium had exhibits.

“When I think back to school, what I remember about each grade is the field trip we took,” said Meghan Wren, founder and director of the Bayshore Center, which offers educational trips on the restored schooner A.J. Meerwald.

The Atlantic City Aquarium brought its traveling exhibit, which includes a cow-nose ray, a horseshoe crab, a white spotted bamboo shark and a chocolate-chip starfish with tiny black dots.

Lisa Schall, assistant executive director of the aquarium, said the traveling exhibit has become more popular as schools cut back on funding for field trips.

“This is good for schools on a limited budget,” she said. “We’ll go anywhere.”

Cost is a factor for many sites. Erin Burnett, senior naturalist with the YMCA Camp Mason in Warren County, sat by a faux campfire and promoted their outdoor experiences and camps.

“People come by and say they remember coming here years ago,” she said. “When I ask why they stopped, it’s always because they don’t have the money.”


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