Aquaponics in the Classroom
What’s in Your Water?
By Cheril Lee | Photography by Ariel Fried
“Fish poop has given us so many cool opportunities,” says Kris Denton, teacher and magnet facilitator at King Science and Technology Magnet Center. Fish poop is an integral part of her classroom’s aquaponics lab, which uses fish waste to help grow nutritious vegetables and herbs. There is a large drum filled with fish—her class has used tilapia, goldfish and perch, but she says any type of fish will work—and their waste is piped in a soilless grow bag where the plants thrive. After receiving the nutrients they need from the fertilized water, the plants act as a filter, cleaning the water before the water is sent back to the fish.
Kris learned about aquaponics just three short years ago when she attended a service learning seminar at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her plan in attending the seminar was to find a unique opportunity for her students, which initially she thought might be centered on water testing or park cleanups, things she felt her middle schoolers could wrap their heads and hands around. Through the seminar “they connect you with a community partner and a university class or professor interested in the same thing you’re working on,” Kris explains, which is where she met Whispering Roots founder Greg Fripp. According to their website, the goal of Whispering Roots is to “provide fresh, locally grown, healthy food for socially and economically disadvantaged communities by using aquaponics, hydroponics and urban farming.”
After spending time talking with Greg, Kris became really interested in the idea of creating an aquaponics lab in her classroom and having the students help her build and maintain it. She says the main difference between aquaponics and hydroponics is that aquaponics uses water and fish where hydroponics is just a water-based system.
Kris’s curriculum has changed each year and is guided by where they are in the process and by what the kids are interested in. The first year the students wanted and needed to figure out how to build the system. They worked on the engineering components: Figuring out how the pipes fit together, making sure the system siphoned, released and drained properly and how to get water from the sink on one side of the classroom to the system on the other side were the priorities.
With the system in place, students the second year were more excited about planting different edible items. Adding to lettuce, which the first-year students had planted, they experimented with different herbs, beans and green peas. Students tried the various foods they grew and donated the surplus to places like the Open Door Mission.
“Then we started learning more about a plant’s life cycle and how to pollinate plants because the kids were growing tomatoes but nothing was happening. They had beautiful yellow flowers but that was it. They didn’t understand that you have to have pollination to grow fruits and vegetables, so we started talking about plant reproduction,” says Kris.
This year’s group was more excited about water chemistry so they did water testing and compared the results to other systems in the metropolitan area and studied what their water looked like.
DeAjia Philmon says the class made her realize how much fun it was to grow her own food. Former classmate Armani Price agrees with that and adds, “The lettuce tasted fresher than any I had ever tried before. We had beets, which I tried, and loved.” Armani says growing things in the aquaponics lab is fairly inexpensive because all you have to buy are seeds. She had a wide variety of responsibilities in the lab, including helping build the system, watering the seedlings and taking care of the fish.
Kris says they have done tastings in the school to let the kids try unique new things, like basil. “They will get excited because they’ve never heard of it until I say something like, ‘Well, do you eat spaghetti? Some of the green flecks in the sauce are basil.’ I like to make those connections for the kids. They are always surprised by the strength of the flavor,” explains Kris about their basil tasting.
DeAjia and Armani both say they loved the class and would really miss it this year. Armani plans to become a chef in the future and grow her own herbs for her restaurant. DeAjia says, “It will be hard to top what I’ve been doing in Ms. Denton’s class. She’s a great teacher and she believes in hands-on learning, and that’s the best way to learn.”
“I hope my students take away the idea that if something goes wrong, they have the power to fix it. I want them to walk away understanding they have more ability than they give themselves credit for,” says Kris.
For more information about the school, go to KingScience.OPS.org. Find Whispering Roots at WhisperingRoots.org.
Cheril Lee has been a freelance writer for two and a half years in Omaha. Her background in news reporting allows her to write on a wide variety of subjects including arts, culture, nonprofits, health and education. Her articles have been published in The Reader, Omaha Magazine and Metro Magazine. She contributes articles that are both informative and entertaining, bringing you an inside look into the subject matter. Tune in to KIOS-fm, Omaha Public Radio, to hear her during the week. Follow her on Twitter @cherillee.