By Sara Ryan
The global agricultural sector is one of the most dominant and essential industries in modern society; however, education surrounding the future of the industry is often overlooked. Based in St. Louis, Missouri, MARSfarm is an educational technology start-up company that makes learning about the future of agriculture- on farms, in greenhouses, and in space- engaging and accessible for students across the world. The MARSfarm in-classroom greenhouse kits allow students of different science backgrounds to directly control the growth conditions of different plants and hence learn how to best grow produce both on Earth and in locations such as the International Space Station (ISS). This month, the American Geographical Society spoke with the MARSfarm CEO and Co- Founder, Mr. Peter Webb, to discuss the company’s goals and the future of farming and agricultural technologies.
Peter Webb’s STEM background originated from databases and DIY prototyping. During his time at University of Missouri – St. Louis, Webb regularly practiced project-based learning. With his father having worked in the climate industry, Webb was introduced to the feedback loops present between environmental conditions and agricultural yield from an early age. Furthermore, personal interest in environmental dynamics showed him how education could be a doorway to better understanding our agricultural future. Webb went on to meet MARSfarm COO and Co-Founder, Drew Thomas, in St. Louis. After deep conversation surrounding agriculture, robotics, space, and education, the MARSfarm company was born in 2020.
MARSfarm products are countertop-sized greenhouses designed for the classroom. The easy-to-assemble nature of the product allows for schools to use very high-tech instruments at a much more accessible price. Once up and running, the greenhouse’s irrigation systems, LED light installments, and environmental controls allow students to tailor the growth conditions to their specific needs. Observing how growing crops react to changes in their environment gives students first-hand insight into the real-world effects of climate change on agriculture around the world and encourages students to independently develop solutions. Although all MARSfarm products are designed and manufactured in St. Louis, these greenhouses are used by 500+ schools all around the world.
The topic of Geography runs deep connections with the implementation and use of the MARSfarm projects. As described by Mr. Webb, “Climate-based geographical data is pertinent to helping create valuable learning experiences for our student users. Many of our students want to run experiments that reflect a specific location’s climate conditions. Using almanacs to extract daylight and temperature data of certain locations, we can program the classroom greenhouses to replicate those conditions to the best of our abilities. This allows students to simulate and learn about their local agricultural conditions and give them practical learnings to take with them into the industry.”
Like many young companies, MARSfarm has faced its own challenges. The importance of agricultural education is often overshadowed by other subjects in schools. Along with this, reductions in funding to many high schools across the US have meant breakthrough innovative initiatives are the first to be refused. Nevertheless, out of the 23,000 + high schools in the US, 10,000 have agricultural programs, highlighting how with proper outreach, a market and interest is present. The perseverance of MARSfarm through these obstacles has painted a bright future for the company. The first four units of MARSfarm Version 1 greenhouse were sold to California State University where they are being used for agricultural research at the Monterey Bay campus. Here these greenhouses are setting the tone for a future of MARSfarm expansion beyond middle and high school education. Furthermore, the increased demand for agricultural environments that can exist in extra terrestrial locations by the new space age provides a fresh new pathway for MARSfarm expansion.
Visit the MARSfarm Community Forum to learn more about their products and stay up to date on the new advancements from the company. Also, check out Mr. Peter Webb’s Lightning Talk at this year’s Geography 2050 STL Symposium!