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STEM Education & Aquaponics - A Natural Fit

Discussing aquaponics at Farm to Market event with elementary students.

Discussing aquaponics at the Farm to Market event with elementary students.

Aquaponics is a natural fit for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) classrooms. Used by the Aztecs, Egyptians, and Chinese as a means to sustainably grow food for large populations, today’s aquaponics technology has made aquaponics accessible nearly all over the globe (and perhaps into outer space). Which makes it a promising instrument for the future of our agricultural system and feeding mankind. As the viability, demand, and importance of aquaponics is increasing, it makes sense that aquaponics is being explored in our kids’ classrooms. Before we talk about the role of aquaponics in classrooms though, let’s talk about what aquaponics is and its numerous benefits.

Aquaponics is a form of non-traditional agriculture that uses a recirculating water system to raise and harvest all-natural plants and fish (in addition to other organisms like red wiggler worms and crawfish) together in a symbiotic environment. It allows a grower to harvest both a valuable protein source as well as most plant species simultaneously. Aquaponics is so efficient that it requires less space and can be practiced anywhere so that people can locally harvest foods when they are freshest and most nutritious. This significantly reduces the waste of fossil fuels, and, in fact, food miles are among the fastest growing sources of greenhouse emissions globally. Alarmingly, 60 to 70 percent of the costs food go to production inputs currently within traditional agricultural and distribution systems. Because of the recirculation of water through the system, aquaponics uses up to 90 percent less water in a soilless environment. It also allows farmers to plant crops typically twice as close with 2-3 times the growth rate when compared to traditional agriculture. Aquaponics can even be a completely self-sustaining system by feeding fish the plants produced from the system!

Aquaponics works with the help of naturally-occurring, beneficial bacteria that thrive in the aquaponic system which allows the nitrogen cycle to take place continuously. Fish are fed and produce waste (ammonia) which then is circulated to the filter and grow beds where Nitrosomonas bacteria convert the ammonia to nitrite which either feed plants or is consumed by other naturally occurring bacteria such as Nitrobacter and Nitrospira. Nitrate converted from nitrite is consumed by plants or safely recirculated throughout the system. Other macro and micronutrients are circulated through the system to support plant growth as well with the help of worms and natural additions of small amounts of potassium, calcium, magnesium, and chelated iron. We maintain USDA organic certification on our 1,000-square-feet aquaponic system by feeding fish fortified fish food that includes these minerals that do not typically naturally occur in fish food or our water supply. Aquaponics is an emerging technology that will be essential for our next generation to feed the world while protecting our most precious natural resources.

Aquaponics is a natural fit for the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) classroom, providing hands-on, practical, and integrative learning opportunities for students (and teachers)! It’s no wonder so many educators and scholars are looking for and finding great ways to integrate aquaponics into their classrooms. Here in Oklahoma, we have worked to develop a curriculum that meets or exceeds Oklahoma Academic Standards (and Next Generation Science Standards) and beyond. We have also developed our aquaponics curriculum to foster 21st-century learning skills, such as an interest in STEM, perseverance, critical thinking, peer-to-peer interaction, and peer-to-adult interaction. Students who receive a successful aquaponics curriculum gain invaluable experience that will prepare them for the future in a way that traditional classroom curriculum does not.

Aquaponics presents a safe environment for continuous learning where students practice managing an ecosystem that is always changing. Practicing aquaponics forces students to solve problems and make critical decisions that will result in consequences that will impact themselves and others. Students are able to address any failure and try again stimulating leadership and team skills development as well as perseverance. Students also are learning technical skills that will be relevant as the emerging aquaponics industry continues to be a critical solution to feeding a growing population globally. We have observed that growers are able to learn and practice business skills as well as feed their community with the healthiest of foods by selling their produce and fish protein.

Because of the nature of aquaponics being a living ecosystem, we have observed that nurturing a living ecosystem also simulates a therapeutic environment for growers of all learning styles as well as learning differences. In addition, our aquaponics systems have been designed to be ADA accessible so that anyone can enjoy its benefits. When students of all ages grow their own food, it stimulates healthy eating habits which promotes the healing and prevention of the most common health ailments that plague our society.

Building chinampas with Tulsa Legacy Charter School Students to establish beneficial colonies of native aquatic plants at Parthenia Lake at Camp Loughridge. Aztecs built chinampas as an early form of aquaponics.

Building chinampas with Tulsa Legacy Charter School Students to establish beneficial colonies of native aquatic plants at Parthenia Lake at Camp Loughridge. Aztecs built chinampas as an early form of aquaponics.

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