Aquaponics teaches hands-on STEM lessons
Posted on 04/06/2018

Using grant funding, Wekiva High School math teacher Hai-Ahn Nguyen conducted a two-day aquaponics training for other teachers interested in starting an aquaponics system at their school sites.

“The more teachers that know to use aquaponics to teach STEM, the better our kids will learn.  Math and science are used to do sustainable farming, to grow healthy, local food. How cool is that.  For example, at Wekiva High School, we have kids who struggle in science and math, and the majority of them do not know where food comes from.  Having the aquaponics system can inspire them to learn. Whatever we can do to make the classroom different from a traditional classroom will help kids more excited about learning,” said Nguyen, Liberal Arts 1 and Advanced Topics in Mathematics teacher.

The STEM based workshop helped elementary, middle and high school teachers explore the cross-curricular benefits (i.e. math, biology, AP Environmental Science, culinary, etcetera) of an aquaponic garden. It required some teachers to dig deep into their toolboxes to remember chemistry formulas and mathematical equations to understand the components of a well balanced plant and fish life system.

“My students are excited to know about aquaponics. They like to take care of the fish and plants. They start seeing how math and science are used to grow fish and plants. I do not have any behavior problems and I have more of their attention. The last three years have gone so well because my students see how we use math and science for real life,” said Nguyen.

Over the two days, teachers heard from three industry experts: Suzanne Archer, the St. Johns River Water Management District Technical Program Coordinator for Agricultural Assistance; Dr. Lance Osborne, Professor of Entomology and Associate Center Director for the University of Florida; and Huy Tran, Apopka Aquaponics Farm owner and consultant.

Archer spoke about the importance of using alternative agriculture farming methods to prepare for the population increase, as well as the increased need for water conservation. Archer praised Wekiva's awareness of water usage and conservation, which is what contributed to it being the only school in Orange County to win the Blue School Grant by St. Johns River Water Management District.

Dr. Osborne taught attendees the importance of predatory insects versus parasites. Essentially, healthy gardens need certain bugs to prevent destruction from herbivorous prey. For example, Coccinellids, commonly known as a ladybug, help ward off aphids or scale insects, which feed off the plant’s vascular system and kill the plant. Using microscopes he showed the participants what “healthy” bugs look like so they can be more aware to not kill all bugs.

Tran taught the proper scientific calculations for the biofiltration system, that included nitrate, nitrite, calcium, oxygen, pH, alkalinity and ammonia levels to keep the fish and plants alive. Tran also taught attendees the pros and cons of the various aquaponic systems to better assist each school facility in choosing one that fulfills their needs.

Measuring Day two was a hands-on portion where participants built a filtration system. They calculated the fish tank volume and measured the other containers to determine the necessary height of the connecting PVC pipe in order for the water to flow through the five-unit filtration process.

“The task of figuring out the volume was helpful for me to help my gifted students. They need the rationale of why. If they don’t hear that, they won’t learn it. This is very real-life concepts that they could see the why,” said Lindsey Neumayer, West Creek Elementary teacher.

For those interested in applying for grants at their school level, Nguyen created her current scheme in two phases. In 2015, she used an OCPS Foundation and Duke Energy Partnership Grant ($10,000 total) to start the system. For phase two (2016-17), she received a Wells Fargo and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant of $50,000. This was used to purchase the two larger fish tanks and the additional plant systems, among other supplies for start-up and maintenance; offer professional development opportunities to teachers that included bringing in consultants and covering the teachers’ sub costs and her curriculum writing hours.