Ray Huard… Twelve-year-old Rachel Palmer has become a bit of an expert on aquaponics – the process of growing plants and fish in water.
She and her classmates at Madison Middle School have built an aquaponics system outside their seventh-grade classroom with the help of Eco Life Foundation, an Escondido-based nonprofit that promotes sustainable farming.
“It was really fun,” said Rachel, who was a gardening aficionado even before her class got involved in aquaponics. “I like to grow my own food and cook it.”
The system she and her classmates built will grow lettuce and raise koi fish.
The waste from the koi acts as a natural fertilizer for the plants, which use the nutrients in the waste and return fresh water to the fish.
“Aquaponics is really just another way to help the environment,” said America Velasco, 12. “You recycle water instead of using new water, using the water over and over again.”
The project is part of seventh grade science teacher Kristina Morrow’s efforts to take students beyond supermarket shelves when they think about food.
“We’re trying to get kids to understand where their food comes from, other than the grocery store,” Morrow said.
Morrow said the class chose lettuce for the aquaponics system because it’s easy to grow, and they chose koi, because koi is a hardy fish that can withstand fluctuations in temperature.
“You could do this with tilapia, or something like that if you want to harvest the fish for food, but we’re not at that point,” Morrow said. “Eventually, once this system is going, we want to build more.”
Not only do students learn about how to grow crops efficiently with the aquaponics system, but they get a taste of what it’s like to be an engineer by designing the system and building it themselves, with guidance from Eco Life, Morrow said.
“We had a general idea of what we wanted, and then they helped from there.”
Working with Eco Life, the students “kind of got to go through the design and engineering process, which is something that the new science curriculum really wants to do,” she said.
The students also learned how to collaborate, how to work as a team, and rely on each other, social skills which are critical in college and in the workplace, Morrow said.
“We had to research what kind of fish to get, and how to build stuff,” America said. “It was a fun, new experience.”
In addition to the aquaponics, Morrow’s students designed and planted a conventional garden, and have a composting bin outside her classroom.
Principal Susan Ford said aquaponics has been a great addition to the school.
“It’s tremendous. It’s teacher initiated and student driven,” Ford said. “We have students who are considering careers in science and biology because of the work they’ve been doing.”
Aquaponics fits right in with Madison’s emphasis on science and technology, Ford said.
She said the school has 13 computer science classes, including classes in digital art, graphic design, coding and digital broadcasting, along with three marine biology classes.
“We have more kids signed up for marine biology than we can provide classes for,” Ford said.