Dome sweet dome: Welcome to plant biology

Story and photos by JUSTINA ZEIGLER

Francisco Delgado-Duran, plant biology teacher at Pima Community College’s West Campus, has been working on a project with his students since September that he hopes can benefit more people in the future.

Last year, his students constructed a successful Geodesic dome greenhouse and planted its first garden using only the dome, water and the desert soil.

“I wanted to show students how to grow crops,” Delgado-Duran said. “It’s inexpensive and easy. And I wanted to show them how you could use the same structure as a living space. Imagine what this design could do for the homeless.”

Zach Brown, a current student of Delgado-Duran, appreciates the value of learning biology in this format, and along with most of the students in this class has taken trimmings home to plant in his own garden.

“It’s nice to have a practical component to what I’m learning, to go out and work on it hands-on,” Brown said. “I took some chili seeds home and planted them; I’m going to make my own salsa. It’s also a good use of the class fee, a little bang for my buck.”

Matt Gerber, another student in Delgado-Duran’s class, agreed.

“I like it, it’s a dope dome,” Gerber said. “It’s fun working with living things, seeing how they grow. It’s great hands-on experience.”

Delgado-Duran said it is just being aware of old ideas.

“We are not inventing anything,” he said. “The Greeks and Romans had these structures. We are just using what is available in a simple way.”

Geodesic domes were popularized back in the 1940s and ’50s when Buckminster Fuller first started playing with the design.

In 1940, Fuller first succeeded with his Dymaxion Deployment Unit, a circular self-cooled living unit with steel rooms. The British used DDUs throughout World War II.

In 1949, Fuller started work on geodesic domes, and applied for a patent in 1951. The U.S. Department of Defense began using these domes as temporary housing units and to protect radar equipment from harsh environments.

In 1954, Fuller received a patent on geodesic domes. During the 1960s and 1970s, these domes became popular as an inexpensive way for environmentally conscious people to build their own homes.

Geodesic domes are created by connecting triangles together in a dome shape, because triangles are the strongest shape there is. No internal supports are needed because the triangles distribute weight evenly throughout the dome. This makes them extremely weatherproof.

They are also more energy efficient, and circulate air more easily than rectangular structures.

Delgado-Duran replicated this dome design using PVC pipe and sheets of plastic, creating one with a diameter of 14 feet. He said it can cost as little as $130 to buy the materials if you measure and cut the pipe yourself, and working alone, you could build one within a day.

“The plants in this type of greenhouse will receive more direct sunlight throughout the day, as the sun follows the shape of the dome, which means more consistent heat input,” Delgado-Duran said. “This helps you to grow crops even throughout the winter.”

Biology student Matthew Gerber inspects the growing corn stalks for health.

The dome averages about 20 degrees higher than the outside temperature. For the summer, the dome can be cooled by cutting windows for ventilation, which can be closed for the colder months. Or it can be reupholstered for a low cost with a different material, such as canvas, to help keep it cool.

This year’s students have planted another thriving garden and are also doing outreach work and collecting data through studies to justify the building of these systems.

“I’m interested in more than just this dome here,” Delgado-Duran said. “These students are going to places like food banks to see how many people are hungry now versus before, how big the families are that need help, gathering information. They are also going to elementary schools to propose building these greenhouse domes for them, for those students to learn how to grow crops and how it can be used to live in. It is using science and math to teach and help others.”

Delgado-Duran ultimately wants to build these domes on other Pima campuses, or for any other schools or communities that are interested. He would like to eventually access a plot of land through the city or state to build these as shelters and a means to produce food for those that are homeless.

“It hurts me to read in the paper about people living in boxes, or trying to find a place to sleep, that are hungry,” Delgado-Duran said. “There is no justification for that in a country as rich as ours. I want to show them an inexpensive way to build themselves a shelter and have a food source.”

He also is drawing his own manual explaining how to build and set up a system using a dome, solar panels and how to build your own solar oven. He is using it as a Power Point tool for the time being.

“You can also make chicken coops, or fish farms with these structures, as you grow your crops,” Delgado-Duran said.

So far, about 60 biology students are involved in this project, collecting data from sociological and ecological points of view, estimating costs of materials for various sizes, choosing what crops to grow and how, and that are willing to help in the construction of more of these domes for others.

Student Jayleen Linn checks flourishing chile pepper plants and harvests beans, while her fellow classmates work on removing weeds near the corn stalks.

Angel Vega, a biology student of Delgado-Durans that helped build the dome last year, still comes by to check it out.

“I feel like it is definitely educational for people in my age group,” Vega said. “I don’t think a lot of them know about agriculture. This is definitely life changing.”

Morgan Wilson, currently in Delgado-Duran’s class, is also helping with the dome project.

“It’s a very creative idea for Pima,” Wilson said. “It presents a cool opportunity that’s cheap. You develop like an ownership or connection as the seeds grow. You get excited and feel proud.”

Brown, along with the other students, think this is a project worth investing in.

“Pima should put more money in it, to build a bigger one,” Brown said.

Wilson agreed.

“Students should come check it out,” Wilson said.

Delgado-Duran is working hard to help Pima students learn important skills beyond the biology and math involved in this project.

“Students need to be aware of the value of helping others,” Delgado-Duran said. “If there are other students from other campuses that would like to help, I would never say no. I want people who are committed to this project. Any students are welcome.”

Delgado-Duran can be reached at fdelgado@pima.edu for more information or if you are interested in contributing to this project and helping it grow.

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