It’s a sunny afternoon on Bell Avenue in North Braddock, and a bunch of kids have gathered around a wooden table set up in what a year ago was just another empty lot.
Now the lot is a kid-driven community garden, and on the table is a microchip called a MaKey MaKey attached to a laptop. Wires that stick out from the MaKey MaKey are clamped onto cherry tomatoes. When the kids squeeze the tomatoes, different musical notes play.
"Each circuit needs to be completely closed in order for electricity to pass all the way through and for the computer to receive the signal," said Kelvin Rojas, a computer scientist who is leading the kids through the technology workshop at the garden. "So all you're doing is your using your body to complete the circuit between you and this little black thing."
This garden project — called Gardweeno — is the brainchild of Lindsey Scherloum and Zena Ruiz, two North Braddock artists who wanted to engage the kids in their neighborhood.
Scherloum and Ruiz got the right to use some land owned by the borough, and they got a Sprout Fund grant for the digital technology. And then, they just showed up. Soon thereafter, so did the kids — and some of their parents.
Ruiz has been there much of the summer, helping the kids put seeds in the ground, watering the plots and ripping out weeds.
"We’re growing tomatoes, basil, greens, zucchini, cucumbers, green beans, lettuce, beets, radish, lots of peppers, dill, a variety of herbs," said Ruiz, who before becoming an artist studied mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. "I have always been one foot in how things work and how can we fix stuff and then the other foot in more of a creative output."
The idea became not just to engage the children in growing food, but to have Kelvin Rojas come regularly and teach them the basics of programming using Arduinos, which are microcontrollers with sensors that can make objects and environments more accessible. It ended up being a lot harder than they originally envisioned to create solid foundations with the kids.
"We were hoping to introduce the exposure to the programming part and introduce sensors that were hooked up the Arduino, and they can collect data and be these little researchers and little scientists," Ruiz said.
That’s because the program was expanded from middle-school aged kids to include all the kids who showed up, and some of them were as young as 5. And expectations were low in North Braddock and neighboring Braddock — two communities with disproportionately high levels of poverty.
"A club appears and then funding is cut and then it disappears," Ruiz said. "And so all of those relationships with those adults that have been fostered are gone. And it takes a lot of energy for the kids, for any kid, to develop a relationship, and I feel that that’s especially a thing in lower-income neighborhoods where people kind of come in and come out and why should they invest their time in you. Why should they care?"
It took a couple months to get kids to keep coming back and to build on the skills and lessons they had worked on the last time they were there. But now, in the fall, some of the kids on the block are regulars.
That includes 11-year-old Lataya Hucks. Before this summer, she had never planted food. Now, she knows every nook and cranny of the garden.
Ruiz said teaching the kids about growing, picking and eating fresh food is just as important than the digital literacy they’re teaching.
The time at the garden is somewhat freeform. The kids can come and go. They can work with the plants or they can play with the Arduinos. Some young kids end up playing tag around the raised beds. Some older teenagers show up and they get put to work carrying logs. A few adults catch up with each other by the snack table. The hope is that they’ll soon move on to the next levels of digital literacy and farming.
Rojas said the same technology that makes the cherry tomatoes into piano keys could be used to test the soil — or do other things.
"Eventually we want to get the kids involved with taking measurements and how to use sensor information to learn about the real world and process it on the Arduino," Rojas said. "It's just taking that creative freedom just a step further, now that you can build simple circuits, you can extend that into the real world. Your projects can now live in the real world. They can use sensors to know how wet the ground is, depending on how wet the ground is maybe you can activate something, you can turn on water … know what I mean? It's more tools in the toolbox in some sense."
Now, Zena Ruiz and Lindsey Scherloum are wrapping up the growing season and trying to figure out how to keep Gardweeno going through the winter. Continuity, they say, is key to the program's success next year.