Why Set Up A Classroom Aquaponics System?
Lots of classrooms have plants and fish, but not many consider combining the two in a symbiotic aquaponics system. Together, fish-waste provides water and nutrients to the plants while the plants clean the water for the fish. Though aquaponics systems contain a complete nitrogen cycle, symbiotic relationships, cellular respiration, and photosynthesis they are in no way limited to the science curriculum. Addressing issues of food security (social studies), design (design/construction/fabrication/art/math), and food preparation (foods/culinary), aquaponics is an exceptionally effective cross-curricular platform for exploring various programs of studies. Regarding curricular connections, aquaponics is curricular gold mine.
What To Consider Before Setting Up A Classroom Aquaponics System
There’s a lot to consider when establishing a classroom aquaponics system but it doesn’t have to be overly complicated. In truth, designing, building, and maintaining a school aquaponics system should be an educational process from beginning to end. Though, before starting, consider the following:
1. Keep It Simple
Simple is almost always better. The fewer components your classroom aquaponics system has, the less there is to go wrong. Simple systems cost less to build and maintain. Don’t break the bank.
At its most basic, an aquaponics system has a tank for fish and a bed for plants – a pump moves water from one to the other and gravity moves it back. Pro Tip – remember that water flows downhill. If the power goes out, the lowest water reservoir should be able to accommodate all of the water moving through your system. This simple rule of thumb will save you a messy cleanup.
2. Start Small and Make it Modular
Though larger systems tend to be more stable, I’d highly recommend starting small. Don’t rush out and buy a one-hundred-gallon tank and turn a quarter of your classroom into an aquarium. Start small. Find an old fish tank and add a grow-bed to it. If you start small and find success, you can always make your system bigger by adding an extra fish tank or grow bed.
3. Use What’s Available
Don’t go out and buy specialized equipment to start a classroom aquaponics system – at least, not at first. Be resourceful. Most schools have at least one use fish tank laying around – if not, look on Kijiji, Craigslist, or Bunz.
The classic aquaponics fish is tilapia as they’re tough and you can eat them, though, most jurisdictions require specialized licensing. When starting out, keep things simple and stock your tank with a handful of inexpensive goldfish.
4. Connect It To The Curriculum
As with all school projects, consider how your classroom aquaponics system fits into the Program of Studies. Are you teaching Science – use your aquaponics system to study the water and nitrogen cycles, propagate plants and identify their various components, map out food chains and webs. Are you teaching the social sciences? Discuss food security, grow culturally significant plants, or use the sharing of resources within the system as an analogy for trade and globalization. How about math? Measure, record, and graph ammonia, nitrate, nitrite, pH, and plant growth over time.
5. Create A Maintenance Schedule
Though aquaponics systems are relatively easy to maintain they’re not maintenance free. Fish require regular feeding, and water quality requires monitoring. In the context of the classroom, it’s important to consider how your system will perform over weekends and holidays. For longer periods, consider purchasing an automatic fish feeder.
When you start your system, buy a simple water quality test kit and have a student sample the water every day until the tank establishes itself (ammonia and nitrate levels fall to zero). Once settled, check the water once a week.
Consider adding a chore-chart to the side of the system so that students can mark off tasks and record findings.
6. Plan For School Breaks
The academic year is filled with starts and stops – weekends, PD, holidays, exam week, semester break, and of course, summer. I have found that aquaponics systems are fine over long-weekends and short breaks but holidays and summer presented a larger challenge. Luckily, I had made friends with some of the custodial staff who were fond of the fish and happy to feed them over summer. Though, it would have brought me some peace of mind if I had harvested the plants and pull the plug on the system for a few months.
Four Ways To Get Started
When it comes to setting up a classroom aquaponics system there are four basic options – here they are from most expensive to least:
1. Buy An Aquaponics System
The benefit of buying an aquaponics system is that you’re guaranteed to have a system that works right from the start. Though this route is the most expensive option, it’s also the easiest. I would recommend finding someone who can build you a custom classroom aquaponics system – such as Sea To Sky Botanics in Edmonton. Here’s what one teacher had to say about a system designed by Sea to Sky:
The aquaponics lab is an authentic, hands on way to introduce so much learning. The system presents real life problem solving on a daily basis. Students have had to solve problems such as how to grow plants more efficiently, how to monitor and adjust pH and whether or not there are enough fish to provide nutrients for the plants. Right now students are researching and designing their own systems which they are really engaged in. Also – it teaches students about sustainability for the future. The best way I can sum up the beauty of owning a system is with one of the student’s comments, “ this is real science”. — Susan Allen. Don Ross Middle School (Brackendale, BC)
For $50 off on a custom Sea To Aquaponics System for your classroom mention the promo-code “BAJERAQUAPONICS”.
2. Work With Someone To Build An Aquaponics System
An alternative to having a system built and delivered is to design and build a system with someone who’s built one before. An option in Edmonton is to contact Sustainable Food Edmonton’s Urban Agriculture High coordinator (that’s me). The Sustainable Food Edmonton’s UAH Coordinator can work with you one-on-one to create a system from scratch. Though your school would be responsible for material costs, Sustainable Food Edmonton will cover the cost of the coordinator.
3. Find Plans And Built It Yourself
If you have a particular system in mind, you can purchase plans online and work with your students to implement them. There are dozens of designs and blueprints out there – a simple good search will yield dozens of options. I recently built a DIY aquaponics system on top of a standard fish tank and am working to make plans available.
If you get stuck, you can always contact Sustainable Food Edmonton’s Urban Ag High Coordinator for some free advice and consultation.
4. Design A System From Scratch
The most time consuming and rewarding option is to work with your students to design a classroom aquaponics system from scratch. Turning the design, build, and maintenance of your system into a class project will give you the most flexibility and richest learning opportunity. But do your research! YouTube’s a good place to start but don’t rule out a good old-fashion book – my favorite is Aquaponics Gardening by Sylvia Bernstein as it’s very practically laid out and easy to follow. Of course, if you get stuck, you can always contact Sustainable Food Edmonton’s Urban Ag High Coordinator.