Undergraduate non-profit teams up with UConn Child Development lab

Photo provided by Jonathan Moore

Levo International, a non-profit organization created by a University of Connecticut undergraduate to bring hydroponic systems to Haiti, is kicking off its partnership with UConn Child Labs today at 10:30 a.m.  

The partnership between Levo International and UConn Child Labs will pilot the non-profit’s first solar-powered hydroponic system, founder of Levo International and a sixth-semester applied and resource economics major with a concentration in international development Christian Heiden, said. At the UConn Child Labs, children under the age of six will have the opportunity to learn how to grow plants in the water-based system.  

“Levo wants to be involved as much as we can with education,” Heiden said. “Education is a good place to start ... the work [UConn Child Labs] do with children coincides with what we are advocating for at Levo ... We want more people to be [more] considerate about the environment and starting off at a young age is a great scenario.”  

Heiden came up with the idea for Levo International in 2015 when he was a junior in high school, he said. His plan to build hydroponic systems for Haitians was deemed too ambitious and risky for his Eagle Scout project with the Boy Scouts of America, so Heiden took the project into his own hands, leading to the creation of Levo International.  

“In Haiti, [hydroponics] is a really efficient system because they suffer from a lack of irrigation.  Water-saving potential and the removal of soil in a place like Haiti, where they have almost no topsoil anymore, can provide food for people who originally didn't have it,” Heiden said.  

Hydroponic systems can be powered in many ways, including manual hand pumps, electricity or solar power, Heiden said. With the solar-powered systems, Heiden said he hopes to sell between 30 and 50 solar-powered systems over the summer within the United States to help fund the manual hydroponic systems for Haitians.   

“Our business platform is open to change. We think there is a huge potential in the selling of hydroponics in the United States because it offers a market that is mostly large and relevant and untapped,” Heiden said. “We don’t have to worry as much [about] donors when we have our own revenue stream.”  

For the UConn Child Labs, this partnership allows their certified Nature Explore classroom to teach children about sustainability and gardening in a unique,interactive way, according to executive director of UConn Child Development Laboratories Anne Bladen.  

“It is really beneficial because children are not having the time outside that they used to have. Gardening is something we can start young with children,” Bladen said. “The toddler program is raising bean plants [right now]. It helps children see that what we do [has] a huge impact on the earth ... They get to be hands-on and our goal is that it will stick with them and continue that commitment.”   

This partnership was encouraged by Heiden’s advisor, Jonathan Moore, the Operations and Information Management Department’s Innovate Coordinator. Moore said he thought the Child Labs would be a great place for the “profit prototype” to be donated.  

“What is a better way to donate the first prototype and create business entrepreneurship and help people in third world countries than putting this into the classroom with a child,” Moore said.  “It’s easier to get growing than planting in the ground. They can grow vegetables and fruits to have as for snacks for the kids. [It shows] a farm-to-table aspect for plant growth so there’s a natural connection there.”  

Not only does having a solar-powered hydronic system at UConn Child Labs help teach kids about gardening, but it also provides opportunities to have meaningful conversations about science and globalization, Bladen said.  

“We like the connection with Haiti. Not everyone has what they have. Not everyone can play outside or go to the grocery store,” Bladen said. “For us, adding to our program that we have and hopefully taking several generations through the Child Labs and having that opportunity [to show] solar power is an important thing. [To be able to] talk about science and water conversation will ultimately not just help these kids but the next generation.”