Always Experimenting

By: Bryan Geary

Growing up, Jake Grzeskowiak ’24, was always taking things apart and putting them back together. “I had a habit of never being able to keep something the way it was out of the box,” he says. “If I got a little remote control helicopter, it had to be something else.”

Over the years, the toys turned into machines but the curiosity was still the same: taking apart computers to learn about the mechanics, building model rockets guided by a flight computer, and now, building FarmBot. “At first, it was just playing around,” Grzeskowiak said. “But I’ve learned that the engineering design process, once it’s learned, can be applied to countless things—maybe something is broken in the house and needs to be fixed—to make it better than it was before.”

Along the way, he’s taken it upon himself to learn calculus, programming languages, and systems engineering to feed his appetite for experimentation. Oftentimes, that’s put him ahead of peers and the learning opportunities offered by a particular grade level. Grzeskowiak has never let that stop him.

“When I got to high school I started to take some computer science and engineering classes and I was able to apply what I learned to projects outside of school,” he said. “Eventually I was looking for a bigger challenge, so I started to look at online courses.”

Granted some extra free time during long stretches of virtual learning brought about by COVID-19, Grzeskowiak took an online aerospace engineering course from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

“It kills me when I hear someone say they can’t learn something because it’s not taught in school, because in this day and age, it’s entirely possible to learn anything you want,” he continued.

Arriving to Tilton as a sophomore, Grzeskowiak and Dean of Teaching and Learning Katherine McCandless agreed that an Independent Learning Study (ILS) would offer the best challenge for his continued study of engineering. Enter FarmBot.

According to its website: “FarmBot is an open-source CNC farming machine and software package designed for small-scale precision food production. The project aims to create an open and accessible technology aiding everyone to grow food and to grow food for everyone.”

Purchased several years ago and still sitting in storage, the perfect storm of ambitious student and ample time had yet to come together. But for Grzeskowiak, FarmBot was not only an opportunity to continue his passion for experimentation, but a way to broaden his understanding of other subjects as well. 

“It kills me when I hear someone say they can’t learn something because it’s not taught in school, because in this day and age, it’s entirely possible to learn anything you want.”

– Jake Grzeskow ’24 

Over the course of the fall and now into the winter, Grzeskowiak has been slowly working his way towards understanding the elements of FarmBot, building its components, and constructing the actual garden area.

“The robotics work is where I have the most experience, but everything else, something as simple as building a box for it to work in, has proven tremendously challenging,” he reflected. “The amount of math that goes into it, the planning, the gardening—I’ve had to learn all of that.”

“Jake’s work embodies the Mastery Approach at Tilton,” said McCandless. “Through his Independent Study, Jake has created a personalized pathway to deepen his understanding with real-world applications. Just as valuable is the community excitement in learning that has been generated by his project.”

At Tilton, Grzeskowiak has found the support he needs to follow his passions and expand the boundaries of his education. “I was kind of maxing out academically at my previous school,” he said. “Taking an independent study there, it was truly independent. Here, having access to a mentor, having access to academic spaces at all hours of the day, and having access to other people on campus, it’s a much more supportive and resourceful environment.”

Ultimately, there is work to be done before FarmBot is up and running—and more yet until it is truly sustainable—but Grzeskowiak is enjoying the journey. More importantly, he wants his work to be something that the entire community can benefit from.

“Whether that means eating the food it grows, helping plant new food, or helping design tools for it,” he said. “I want it to be a point of pride for the school, that we have this sustainable piece of engineering and robotics in our school, and anyone who comes to Tilton has the opportunity to be a part of that.”