Learning Comes Alive with Aquaponics

Gayle Smallwood

How do you get a bunch of 5th-graders excited about science and math? With an aquarium of course!

Fifth-grade teacher Libby Mitchell and her colleagues at Ford Elementary School in Acworth, GA brought science to life during the 2014-2015 school year with an innovative project geared toward developing farming techniques for areas at high risk of floods and drought. It’s called aquaponics, an ecosystem that draws water and nutrients for plants from an aquarium of fish. The fish waste provides nitrates for fertilization and the plants’ roots filter the water that goes back into the tank.

Aquaponics display

Aquaponics is an ecosystem that draws water and nutrients for plants from an aquarium of fish. The fish waste provides nitrates for fertilization and the plants’ roots filter the water that goes back into the tank.

Libby explains that “Our school is very ecofriendly and we have a lot of learning gardens. After reading one of our required books that mentioned a boy wanting his father to get into doing hydroponics or aquaponics, several of us [teachers] wanted to know more about it. I looked into it and realized that creating this system that I knew nothing about could meet most of our science and math standards. It also met the requirements of a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) certified project.”

To kick start the project, HATponics CEO Ryan Cox brought his mobile lab to the school to give students a hands on introduction to the system and explain how it can be useful around the world. It may sound surprising that a CEO would take the time to travel to an elementary school – and Mr. Cox came back more than once to help – but HATponics has a goal of feeding 20 million people by 2020. Sharing this innovative system is part of making that mission a reality.

Ryan Cox HATponics

It’s not uncommon for HATponics CEO Ryan Cox to give students a hands on introduction to the aquaponics system.

After the introduction each student came up with a design for a classroom system and broke up into collaborative teams to compare and vote on the best one. Each group then created a scale model of their design and presented it to the class for a final vote. With financial assistance from Interface’s Environmental Education Grant the school bought the supplies and the students set to work. Except for sawing PVC pipe and drilling holes, the students built it themselves. The completed system was about 5.5 ft. tall, 4 ft. wide and 8 ft. long. Pretty impressive for a group of 5th-graders!

Kids working

Once the classroom system was completed, the students divided up responsibilities for the various jobs of maintaining the system and the garden.

Once completed they decided which of them would take responsibility for the various jobs of maintaining the system and the garden. And there was a lot of work to do. Libby says, “The whole year was a major learning curve and they were problem solving weekly. I was really proud of them because they worked through each issue and didn’t give up. Every student was actively engaged in the project, even those who seemed bored with science before.”

What did they learn over the course of the year? Perhaps one of the most important things was that you need the right fish for the crop you’re growing. They were growing lettuce, which is a cool weather crop, but the tropical fish in the tank required a higher water temperature. And in addition to trial and error keeping nitrates and pH at the right levels, the students also dealt with leaks and fish that fell victim to the pump.

“We had to design something to put over the mouth of the pump so the fish wouldn’t get sucked up but without blocking the water flow. And between each big PVC pipe there were hoses – garden hoses – with a connector. Originally, there were filters between each hose to keep solids from going back into the tank, but the filter blocked the flow so we had flooding. We had all kinds of issues,” Libby says.

Fifth-grade students also worked with the 4th-graders to get them ready to continue the project for the next school year. Libby says that they began the school year in 2015 with the completed system and hope to harvest at least once before Christmas. Then they’ll dismantle it and start all over, giving another class the opportunity to perhaps come up with an even better design.

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