In fall 2016, Melanie Shimano, Engr '14, '15 (MS), pitched an innovative idea to the director of Green Street Academy, a West Baltimore middle school/high school: teach students to grow vegetables using computer-controlled tabletop greenhouses. Kids would learn computer programming, engineering, and design while also thinking creatively about producing fresh food in neighborhoods with limited access, like their own.
"I thought it would be a good way to introduce technology and also to engage students in real challenges happening in their communities," says Shimano, a faculty member at Johns Hopkins in the Whiting School's Center for Leadership Education.
With several grants from Baltimore City and local corporations, Shimano's Food Computer Program has now reached almost 300 students around the city. This past year, she was recognized by Forbes magazine as one of "30 Under 30" making an impact on U.S. education.
Shimano teaches students how to assemble the food computers—about the size of a dorm fridge—out of sturdy foam. They add grow lights, temperature sensors, and fans, all controlled by small computers they program themselves. By the end of the semester, students harvest fresh lettuces and herbs and come away with new ideas on how to grow more in communities where it's needed the most.