Looking for new ways to teach chemistry three years ago, Westerville North High School teacher Jeff Bracken procured materials for the school's first hydroponic food plot.

Looking for new ways to teach chemistry three years ago, Westerville North High School teacher Jeff Bracken procured materials for the school's first hydroponic food plot.

Since then, the program has continued to grow, with 12 hydroponic "pods" now placed in many of the school's classrooms, offices and empty storage spaces. Crops include basil, oregano, cherry tomatoes, four varieties of peppers, spinach, catnip, citronella and hydrangeas.

"Sometimes people will look at that and say, 'Is Jeff Bracken trying to take over the school?' Well, no," Bracken said.

In fact, as the program has taken over classroom space, it's also taken over space in many teachers' curricula.

Math teachers have had students track root growth to try to find an equation to predict it. In chemistry, students have developed a nutrient solution to feed plants, looked at the way chemicals affect the color of hydrangea flowers and attempted to make extracts from catnip and citronella plants.

This school year, the special education department got on board with the hydroponics program, asking for rafts to be placed in one of their classrooms and teaching students to plant, grow and harvest lettuce to be used in the school cafeteria.

The students also are in the process of experimenting with growing spinach, which also could be used in the cafeteria, Bracken said.

The indoor growing pods are an advantage, he said, because they allow students to monitor plants and conduct experiments or lessons related to the plants without leaving their classrooms.

"What we like is that it's fully integrated into the classroom," he said. "It's fairly low-maintenance."

Bracken said he's not sure what initially piqued his interest in hydroponics, but he said he read about it somewhere and visited Indoor Gardens in Columbus.

"I was fascinated by what they were growing," he said.

He then talked to the school district's resource officer to see what happened to grow lights and other equipment confiscated by Westerville police. Bracken struck a deal with the department, which began donating, rather than destroying, the equipment.

From there, he has secured around $25,000 in grants to continue adding new hydroponics pods to the school and trying to grow new plants.

Bracken began selling the basil grown by students to local restaurants and grocery stores, with the money going back into the program. Lettuce began going to the cafeteria for consumption, and the school also has made food donations to the Westerville Area Resource Ministry.

The school staff has been instrumental in the growth of the program, Bracken said, with teachers beginning to request the hydroponic pods and staff members agreeing to have the pods placed into their meeting spaces.

"The encouragement of our staff -- I can't speak enough about that," Bracken said. "It's been a real joy having the staff on board with us."

Even with the success of the hydroponics program at North, Bracken said he sees more potential and believes the program will reach full stride within the next year or two.

"We're still in the learning phase right now. I envision, within the next year or two, pushing things to the next level," Bracken said. "I think we're a year or two away from finding out what we can do with our full potential."

He envisions selling enough produce to fully fund the program and perhaps other materials for the school.

He also would like to see more classrooms using hydroponic pods to grow curriculum-related plants, such as a history classroom growing old-world spices or a Spanish classroom growing hot peppers to make traditional Cinco de Mayo foods.

He'd also like to see a supply room that's now housing cherry tomato plants completely filled with hydroponic pods.

"Potential is definitely there. It's just a matter of grants and do we have the room for it," Bracken said. "My goal is that now that we see it works, when you drive by North High School, you'll see the (grow lights) glow."