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Give the teachers what they want!

October 27, 2015

At our recent teacher meetup at the MIT Media Lab, we had the chance to chat with the pioneer teachers and students who have been using our Food Computers to grow food in their their classrooms. We asked them what they need and want us to do to improve the systems and it turns out they’ve got big plans!

Here are a few of the ideas that our engineers and web developers will be wrestling with as we move towards a better Food Computer future and an enhanced user experience:

  • Improving the water refill process: One of the struggles that all of the classes faced was measuring and refilling the water in the basin. The foam insert was difficult to remove once the plants had grown large, and the teachers are hoping we can build a system to easily measure the height of the water and refill it automatically from an external reservoir.
  • Plant placement plans: Another issue we uncovered through discussion is that the placement of plants really seemed to matter. If large leafy plants were placed next to small, delicate herbs, a canopy effect would block out the light and the smaller plants ceased to survive.
  • Parts kit: “No one wants to be the kid who kills all of the plants”, said one teacher, so it’s tough for kids to really learn to use the various electronic components without fear of ruining the recipe. One teacher suggested providing a separate kit of independent parts for students to tinker with outside of the Food Computer so that they can later apply what they’ve learned to the functioning machine.
  • Make the pieces easier to move: Some teachers and students have found it difficult to remove the shell, adjust the height of the lights, or take the plants out through the window. They key to tackling these issues will be engineering mechanisms that will make movement smoother, without drastically increasing the cost of production.
  • Barry’s solar mod: One all-star student, Barry, from Charlestown High came up with the idea to make the Food Computers more energy efficient by implementing some sort of solar modification. “The lights in the school are already on all day anyway. Why can’t we use some of that to power the Food Computer?” It won’t be enough to power the whole machine, but to solar power even one component is a step in the right direction!
  • Spy cam feature: The Food Computer camera is already a feature that we intend to incorporate so that users can check on their plants remotely and make time-lapse videos of their growth, but what if you want to check out how other schools are doing? A spy cam feature would allow users to access photos from other Food Computers to compare or even compete with their plants!
  • Make it a Food Laptop: One important element that every teacher wants from the Food Computer is improved portability. If the machines could be easily moved between classrooms then more teachers and students would be able to reap the benefits of having access to the Food Computer as a learning tool. It’s easier to justify spending a considerable amount of tightly budgeted money if it can benefits ten classrooms rather than just one, they said.
  • Prove the educational value: These six teachers have been making their own efforts to naturally integrate the Food Computer into their existing curriculums, but they are not always sure how to use them in their lessons. In order to purchase one, they would need to prove its educational value with specific guarantees of what students will learn.

All of these are great ideas and we hope to implement as many as possible in some form! These and other solutions to the imperfections of the Personal Food Computer prototype and fun additions to the user experience will all be considered moving forward, but they may not all be feasible to include under the budget that we’re aiming for.

While we love cool features, each one comes with a price tag for production, and we want to make sure that when the Personal Food Computers is introduced to the market, it can be reasonably affordable within the tight restrictions of a school’s budget. We will continue to improve the Personal Food Computer until we have a fun, easy-to-use, educational model that is worth everything that’s put into it, and everything that comes out.

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