Aliso students use aquaponics with the help of an equipment loan from Cold Spring School.

Last summer, Aliso Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Ryan Francisco attended a conference focused on Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics (STEAM) in San Francisco. There he met Jean Gradias, who teaches STEAM at Cold Springs School in Montecito, and she agreed to loan aquaponics systems to Aliso for the fall term, as Cold Springs won’t be using theirs until Spring.

Aliso has been focusing on STEAM education in recent years with a robotics lab and computer programming program. The aquaponics systems installed in each of the school’s three, fifth-grade classrooms represent a continuing integration of STEAM projects in the curriculum at Aliso.

Aquaponics combines conventional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals such as snails, fish, crayfish or prawns in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment. Commercial systems typically raise tilapia or other edible fish, but students at Aliso are using zebra fish (related to minnows) to experiment with and learn about the system.

The “fish create fertilizer,” Francisco explained, “and the plants take nutrients and filter-out ammonia and waste from the water for the fish tank.” A pump moves water from the fish tank through pipes and clay pellets that support plants’ root systems. Francisco, along with fifth-grade teachers Amanda Ochs and Don Piccoletti, have their students monitoring daily levels of nitrates, ammonia and PH with testing kits.

“We have talked about de-forestation in class,” Francisco said. “Farming is a leading cause,” he added, and said that aquaponics systems not only provide communities with fresh vegetables but also protein from the fish as well. Aliso students are cultivating basil, tomato, jalapeño, rosemary, cilantro and lettuce. Although the aquaponics systems are inside classrooms, enough natural light filters in for the plants to grow.

Francisco said this year represents a trial period, in which students are learning how the system functions and noting how different plants do in the classroom setting. “We’ll be working on something to build our own kits,” Francisco noted. Moving forward he hopes to get support from the parent group, local nurseries, or possible grants to fund future aquaponics systems for fifth-graders at Aliso.

Working with the systems gives students the opportunity to integrate math and writing skills in monitoring the daily status of the plants and fish. An added benefit of having the aquaponics systems is that students who are normally shy or withdrawn have “more motivation to participate,” Francisco said.      

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