Silas Hoffman mixes STEM, gardening for scholarship project

MUSCATINE, Iowa–Growing up, Silas Hoffman loved gardening. As a second grader, he enjoyed nothing more than tending the raised garden bed his grandparents gave him for his birthday and spending time with his neighbor, Mrs. Maher, finding out more about her garden. “I loved learning about all kinds of plants, but mostly enjoyed growing things I could eat,” he remembers.

In fourth grade, Silas discovered a new passion, robotics. He joined a FIRST Lego League team and found that he enjoyed it so much that he continued to compete on robotics teams throughout middle and high school.

From that time on, Silas focused much of his time and energy on robotics, letting his gardening hobby slide. However, while at home during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, he discovered robotic farming, a surprising and intriguing combination of his interests. Through online research he discovered a project called a FarmBot, which uses a robot with several attachments, mounted on a raised track, to perform various gardening tasks as programmed. “As soon as I saw the FarmBot, I immediately understood that if I would’ve had earlier exposure to robotic gardening, I likely would’ve maintained a dual interest in robotics, technology, and gardening and agriculture,” he shared.

A junior at Muscatine High School, Silas knew he wanted to apply for the Hoover Uncommon Student Scholarship program, a program his three older brothers had participated in and enjoyed. As part of the program, accepted students carry out a project of their choice that benefits the community in some way. Wanting to incorporate his interests into his project, Silas chose to create a demonstration FarmBot garden to teach younger students about both agriculture and robotics simultaneously.

“My goal is to help kids in the Muscatine Community School District get hands on exposure to a FarmBot – an easy to learn open sourced gardening robot,” he explained: “I’m working with our high school and junior high school agriculture teachers to introduce Robotic Farming to our school district’s students. My hope is to implement a FarmBot robotic gardening system at the district’s Muscatine Agriculture Learning Center.”

As Hoffman begins work on his project, he would like to thank the community for their support of his initial work. “It’s been great to see how supportive the community has been so far,” he observed. “Muscatine Lumber has been great!” he added. “They generously donated the lumber and materials for me to build the first rolling garden bed on which I will install the first Farmbot.” Throughout the summer, Hoffman also welcomes any donations of potting soil, as he will need 26 square feet to fill the beds.

In October, Hoffman will present about the successes and challenges of his project as well as the positive impact it had on the community. All Hoover Uncommon Student participants will receive a scholarship worth $1,500, and up to four will receive an additional $10,000 in scholarship money. “I’m excited about it and hope the other students like it as much as I do, but it’s a bit of a roller coaster,” said Hoffman. “I’m pretty proud though because I’ve seen a lot of really interesting projects presented over the years and to be selected as one of those feels good.”