How an Aquaponics STEM Education Tool Changed Her Classroom: My Conversation with Jane Callery

Jane Callery's aquaponics stem education tool at CREC
Students from Jane Callery’s class love their aquaponics system.
My Conversation with Jane Callery

With their newly installed aGarden system gently humming away in the background, our resident writer Alex (Nedd) Orlando sat down with Jane Callery. Jane is a teacher at CREC Academy of Science and Innovation. Alex interviewed her over Skype to talk about the ways she’s utilizing her aquaponics STEM education tool. From breaking down the chemistry behind the nitrogen cycle to the expansive possibilities of an entire curriculum, read as they discuss her own experiences as an educator seamlessly incorporating aquaponics into the classroom.

Tell me how you first got involved with FRESH Farm Aquaponics [Trifecta Ecosystems]. How did that relationship begin?

Originally, somebody from CREC central came in with the FRESH Farm Aquaponics (Trifecta Ecosystems) connection. They asked if I’d be interested in working with them and working with the students, and I said, “absolutely!” Just learning about the Aquaponics system myself, I thought it was very interesting, and the kids love it. They love it, love it.

I was very impressed with the first lesson that Spencer did. He came in with some diagrams and I was looking at all the chemical symbols he had on his papers—there were arrows showing the systems, along with the inputs and outputs. I thought to myself, “Hmm…I don’t know about my sixth graders, if they’re going to be able to do this.” But he just did a fabulous job of breaking it down for them, explaining how the ammonia gets changed into nitrites and all of that. At the end of his lesson, he had a sixth grader recite everything he had learned from the presentation. I was just blown away; I couldn’t believe it.

They still reference that lesson, to this day. I’m just now reviewing the idea of an Aquaponics ecosystem because I’m trying to tie it into our ecosystem concepts. Although, again, Spencer was here a month ago teaching that lesson, back at the end of September [2015], and they could still tell me the actions that were happening, the connections between the fish, the plants and the water, as well as how it all flows through the system. I thought it was incredible.

Wow, so even at a sixth-grade level these are still concepts that they’re engaging with and understanding. It sounds like they’re getting really enthusiastic about the material.

Absolutely. I’m thinking, “What a great way to look at chemistry!”

And biology, too…

Of course!

What do you think the kids are latching on to, in particular, from this kind of curriculum?

First, I really think it’s the organisms themselves. Kids at this age really love things that they can touch and feel and see. The first intrigue was the fish, of course: “Oh, these fish are so cool!” The one thing that I was a little disappointed in, but Spencer helped me work it through, is that we can’t see the fish unless they’re right at the front of the viewing holes.

So I’ve ordered some submersible lights that we’re going to put in there, and hopefully that will allow the kids to see the fish better. The concern, at the beginning, was that the kids thought everything was dead because they couldn’t find anything. And then they had to drain it because it had a leak—which again, was actually a wonderful opportunity in disguise because it allowed the kids to realize, “Oh, there’s little pockets here that the fish are hiding behind.” Sure enough, we put in the 15 trout and the 12-15 koi, and while you can’t always see them on a daily basis, when they had to drain the system, they were all still there!

Even putting the fish back in the tank again, the kids were able to extract them from the sump-pump area. I have kids who come in every morning doing the water testing. It’s all student-generated, from the data collection to the feeding, cleaning, and keeping up with maintenance.

That’s amazing that the kids are even involved in the data collection and analytics about the system. Were they involved in building and setting up the system, or was that a service that FRESH provided?

Yeah, Spencer and the FRESH guys did all the setup. But it was cool to have it at the beginning of the school year, too, because I had the students try to predict what function they thought the equipment performed. We got all kinds of crazy responses like a shark tank or a washing machine. But they were instantly curious. “What are these rocks?” Even thinking about growing things in what they see as rocks helps expand their conception of biology and agriculture.

We also did some germination experiments, and made little pots of gravel beds as soil and put the same seeds in there, to see if they could germinate seeds. They were able to do that. Again, trying to open up their minds to not always thinking that they know the answer. Now they understand that you don’t need to have soil to grow plants. To see it growing in the rock beds was great.

Spencer’s most recent lesson was on the types of beds, such as the flotation beds and the vertical systems. Now they have a new way of planting, where it’s not always in soil, and there are shale beds and water beds where we can put plants inside.

What kinds of things are you and your students growing right now?

Right now, we have some red leaf lettuce and green leaf lettuce, in addition to vine spinach. I had never heard of that before. Then I also brought in some of my herbs from home, because we’re getting a frost warning. I have some lemon basil in there, a rosemary plant and a couple of strawberry plants.

The students are doing another germination experiment, where they want to put a couple of seeds in that same setting, but they’re not planted in the rock beds themselves. They’re in cups with soil in them. We’ve seen that the seeds are already starting to germinate in there, so that was another exciting thing for them to witness.

That’s so cool. Have you gotten into either the sustainability benefits or nutritional advantages of Aquaponics at all?

No, not yet. We’re really focusing on the growing process. With the lettuce, it was slow at first, but even the kids have said, “Oh, it’s growing!” We can see some more growth, but Spencer’s explained the balance of the nutrients in the system, as well as the fact that it takes a while. We started increasing the food that we’ve given the fish to hopefully speed up the system a bit.

Do you see the potential for a long-term project where you build a system, together, with your students?

Absolutely. As a result of Spencer’s last lesson, where he talked about the different systems, he asked the kids to brainstorm, “What would you build if you were to build your own system?” While some of them drew exactly what they saw here, we started to think about recyclable materials and what we could use to construct a system. We had small pockets of students that started developing different designs, thinking specifically about using recycled materials.

I’d like to continue with that. I said to the students, “If you come up with a plan and a list of materials, I can help you get them and maybe we can set up some smaller, counter-top systems. Then, by the end of the school year, they’d be able to take them home. Again, it wasn’t everybody, but there were a small group of students that really got excited about that option.

Could you see yourself developing an entire curriculum or course around Aquaponics, going from concept generation all the way to building out individual systems?

Absolutely. And then, like you said, I’d want to explore how we use this technology to feed the students in our school. How much would you have to plant? What kind of a system would you need? How do you keep it sustainable so that you’re continually able to generate enough for an ongoing supply of produce for the kitchen? I’d love to investigate that further.

That’d be amazing. One last question for you, Jane. What is most exciting for you, as an educator, about introducing Aquaponics into the classroom?

What’s most exciting for me is the student engagement. They’re just thrilled to death about having this, and they’ve taken it over. They have ownership over that whole system and what’s happening in it.

People in education talk about student discourse. When I have student teachers in the classroom, I tell them, “This is my favorite part of my job.” When I have kids talking about what they’re learning and other ways to make things better, with the Aquaponics system, for example, that’s how I know I’ve met my goal. They’re so excited about it.

And then I have other kids who do the water testing and they teach other kids about how to do it so that we have a lot of hands on opportunities for many students, not just the few who want to do it. Teaching others is a great way to accomplish that. Shyer students who may not volunteer at first have the opportunity to try it out for themselves, and get taught by another student.

I even have adults in this building, who, when this system first came into the classroom, they all couldn’t wait to see what it was all about. The people that work in the building and clean the building will always tell me, “I love that garden, it’s so beautiful!” Adults and children alike are being touched by our Aquaponics system here. I can’t wait to see where that goes.

Whether you’re a teacher, a parent, an administrator, or just someone interested in empowering students, I hope this interview speaks to you.

If you’re inspired by Jane’s story and want to bring an aquaponics STEM education tool to a school near you, contact our education team directly.

You can also call us directly at (860) 785-0616 any time between 9am-6pm EST.



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