From Farm to Table (with Robots)

January 26, 2023
For the students in this Sophomore Scholars in Residence course, growing food is about as easy as building a robot

By Madyson Fitzgerald, '23, Communications Assistant for Equity & Community

Outside of the Carole Weinstein International Center, a power tool could be heard whirring near Passport Café. Some scrap pieces of wood lay on the grass near a tarp with additional tools scattered nearby. A student and his professor were building a standing flower bed, the size of which resembled a smaller pool table.

Sophomore Ryan Thompson was drilling holes into the legs of the garden bed. His professor, Michael Marsh-Soloway, taught Digital Revolutions in Context: From Book to Byte and Back Again, the Sophomore Scholars in Residence (SSIR) course he joined at the beginning of the year. Marsh-Soloway gathered tools from the back of his car while supervising the building session.

Thompson had already gotten the chance to build a doorbell and a fan earlier in the semester, but the FarmBots project would be his class’s biggest challenge yet.

The Digital Revolutions in Context course “examines the phenomenon of the internet, considering its origins, ongoing developments, and manifold applications across diverse scientific, artistic, economic and philosophical arenas,” according to the SSIR’s syllabus.

“I chose this SSIR because I’m really interested in technology,” Thompson said during that Friday afternoon’s building session.

The students in the class began with basic projects to get them familiar with the technology and engineering they’d be doing. Since then, they’ve built the garden bed and assembled the robot kits from scratch, Marsh-Soloway.

“The process entails putting those two components together — the analog and the digital — and then we have to calibrate it all, and it'll really take some tests and a lot of trial and error,” he said.

Marsh-Soloway received a Course Support Grant from the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement for the necessary supplies.

Once the project is completed, the FarmBot system includes machine learning components built into it. The FarmBot will do most of the agricultural work, keeping track of sunlight levels, possible pests, soil acidity and more. There’s a lot of hard work in farming, Marsh-Soloway said, and with technology, it can become more efficient.

Farmers generally tend to their crops with inherent knowledge of these factors, but “it’s one thing to have anecdotal data, but it’s another thing to have the machine learning confirm or deny your hypothesis.”

“I also think that you can have a similar connection to the land with perhaps more efficiencies built into it,” he said. “You can be creative with the way in which you connect the land, not only to yourself, but to the tools we have at our disposal.”

Marsh-Soloway’s primary goal, he said, is to teach his students originality and innovation. This goal is what drew junior Daniel Verdi do Amarante to become a teaching assistant for the course. After taking a first-year seminar with Marsh-Soloway, he discovered he liked a lot about the class and was invited to become a TA for his SSIR.

“I think in everything that you may want to do, knowing about technology is really important,” he said. “Even if you're not coding on a daily basis, I think understanding how technology works and the role that it plays in our lives is really important.”

In addition to building the FarmBots and monitoring them through the spring semester, the students in the course will get to travel to Silicon Valley.

As part of the course’s curriculum regarding digital revolutions, Marsh-Soloway wants to teach students Silicon Valley isn’t just a geographic location, but a philosophical mindset, he said.

“It's sort of this mindset of, you know, experimentation and creativity and innovation and, and radical wealth building through community betterment,” he said. “And so, I'm trying to show students that what makes Silicon Valley unique is not something that's unique to California, but it's something that we can import to our own hometowns and local communities.”

The FarmBot project is just about finished, Amarante said. As of now, the only tasks left are to connect some of the extra cables and finally “make everything work.”

“I think having that mix of knowing how to create a code or analyze a data set, but also understanding what the data means and what you can solve with your analysis — and then we can present about it — I think it's really important,” he said. “It's one of the best aspects of the course.”