iFarm delivers new technology for RGS agriculture students

The Rockhampton Grammar School is the first school in Australia to receive an iFarm.

The iFarm is a fully computerised interactive farm science research station designed specifically for Australian secondary schools.

Supported by funding from the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry as part of the Educating Kids About Agriculture: iFarm programme, interest in the iFarm attracted 150 applications and RGS was one of 50 successful schools across Australia. 

 RGS Head of Agriculture Sarah Streeter said the iFarm tied in well with the School’s programme, from Year 8 agriculture to Year 12 Agriculture Science.

“The students have hit the ground running with the iFarm,’’ Ms Streeter said.

“We currently have spring onions, basil and snow peas in growing in the iFarm that are part of the Year 9 horticulture student experiment assessment task. The students have programmed the system to measure fertiliser treatments and they will measure response in plant growth to fertiliser.”

The iFarm captures wind energy and solar energy, and stores that in batteries, whichrunthe computer system and the pumps to deliver water and liquid fertiliser to the unit.

“We can programme each of the eight individual plant growing cells in the unit to receive specific irrigation schedules or fertiliser treatments and can also be accessed and managed remotely,’’ Ms Streeter said.

“We can programme the system from the main campus at School or anywhere in the world. You can not only programme the schedule but also see the input from the moisture and temperature sensors to check that it’s delivering what we’ve programmed it to do.

“It was really interesting in the classroom last week when we looked at the smartboard and could see what was happening at the farm, being able to control the system and make decisions on what the unit is doing at the farm. This is something new and something we haven’t seen before.”

The iFarm’s purpose is to improve student’s understanding of the resources required to produce food and fibre, and to stimulate interest in careers in agriculture and related fields. Students can do comparative trials, measuring and monitoring all variables such as water, fertiliser and plant growth.

The units were specifically designed to meet a brief by the Australian Government to have young Australians engaged in the agricultural education and also science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The units were designed and built purely as educational tools and are not available to buy commercially.

Ms Streeter said the iFarm provided a great opportunity to expose RGS students to the technology and engineering that comes with new age agriculture, precision agriculture and remote monitoring which is finding its way not only into intensive industries but also some of our extensive industries like grazing.
“80% of jobs in agriculture are outside the farm gate so this is exposing our students to opportunities for creative and forward thinking solutions to some of the agricultural problems which might engage more young people into agriculture in Australia,’’ Ms Streeter said.

“Technology has been incorporated in industry but whether we’re promoting that to young people and our school leavers I’m not sure if we’re fully there yet.

“Much of what we see in the media is related to farm gate agriculture whereas things like biotechnology, engineering, trade and marketing, engagement with international markets – there are so many areas that require skilled creative thinkers leaving school and choosing agriculture as a career path. “I feel the iFarm may be one of our ways to encourage students with backgrounds outside of farming to think of agriculture as a career path.”

Ms Streeter said plant were “tricky” to control and the iFarm has provided an opportunity to add control factors into the experimental design programme.

“There’s two growing units of each crop with one growing unit being the control in the experimental design where it’s just receiving regular irrigation and each crop has a treatment cell which is receiving liquid nitrogen, potassium and a phosphorus combination fertiliser twice a week. Students predict that they will see a response in plant growth in the plants that are receiving fertiliser,’’ Ms Streeter said.

“The fact we can better control factors such as irrigation, and monitor growing conditions closely will see the success of our plant experiments improve.”