Try to picture tomatoes growing on vines that are living off water where tilapia are swimming.

Sound cool? That's what teachers like Arlene Pama Castro of Untalan Middle School and Bonifacio Urbano of Jose Rios Middle School are hoping students will think when they see aquaponics systems at schools.

The goal is to get students interested in ways of growing food for the local – and global – community in a way that is environmentally friendly and sustainable, said Castro, a pre-advanced placement science teacher.

Part of achieving that goal is inviting students to participate in this educational activity and gain hands-on experience with the engineering, construction and maintenance of aquaponics systems.

"The teachers came up with the design and materials, but the students had to create blueprints of proposed designs – making models for the engineering behind their proposals," Castro said.

"(The students) learn to compare the pros and cons of each design. Students quickly learn that ecosystems are self-sustaining and can survive on their own, and aquaponics is a simulation of an ecosystem which they have to constantly maintain – turning their responsibilities into a multitude of simple experiments."

Those experiments look at achieving the best balance in water chemistry, observing plant and fish nutrition, measuring water flow and determining the best level of aeration – all partnered with the application of real-world problem solving.

Additionally, the team is creating an urban community garden. Students and teachers are collaborating on the project's maintenance and expansion.

Open to the community and other schools, the established aquaponics program also serves as a demonstration for the school's Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Expos, when students present their research and designs to others.

The students' accumulated research allows for regular reinvention, as students from year to year build on the project, Castro said.

Growing a greener future

A similar aquaponics irrigation system was built at Jose Rios Middle School.

Urbano, a science teacher at the Piti school, introduced a hydroponics system seven years ago as demand for hands-on activities in the classroom increased.

Teaching students about environmental phenomena and the scientific process, the "Home of the Voyagers" provides the learning experience of an outdoor laboratory while building a system prototype through the engineering design process. Lessons in sustainable food production highlight progressive advancements of technology with the goal of boosting local produce yields with a smaller carbon footprint.

Urbano noted the developing awareness of the island's limited resources and the practicality of the project.

"The project is an enjoyable approach to learning the STEM content, addressing issues like sustainable economic development, environmental science, agriculture, food systems and health," all of which inspires students to learn more of STEM career opportunities, Urbano said.

"There are other schools on the island with an aquaponics setup as part of the green STEM program, and it gives the students exposure to this technology. If we educate and encourage enough students to learn and grow vegetables and fish in a confined space – we can improve the future of food production in the island," Urbano said.

Castro agreed.

"This has certainly inspired several of my students to express interest in engineering, in marine biology and in robotics," Castro said, noting how past students built similar aquaponics systems in their high schools. "This shows promise toward a STEM field career as they want to further what they learned."

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