- Associated Press - Sunday, June 14, 2015

BOAZ, Ala. (AP) - Boaz Middle School science teacher Renee Adams must be doing something right in her advanced science class. She has a line of students wanting to take part.

The class uses aquaponics - growing fish and plants together - to grow vegetables in the school’s greenhouse, in addition to the usual biology classwork.

There are 18 spots in the class, which recently completed its third year; 75 students are on the waiting list.

On June 10, Adams shared her techniques with 23 teachers attending an aquaponics/aquaculture workshop sponsored by Gadsden State Community College and Auburn University. The teachers also visited the greenhouse to see how it is set up.

The first semester focuses on plants and system design, and how plants are structured. The second semester is comparative studies - using fish and their body structure compared to humans and other organisms, examining how they are alike and how they are different.

Adams said it takes about three weeks to get the aquaponics system running and about three weeks to break it down.

The fish are in a tank. The water and the nutrients flow though pipes where the plants are, or the nutrient-filled water is poured over the material the plants are rooted in.

The roots absorb the nutrients and the water - now clean - is recirculated back to the fish tank. The cycle repeats itself continuously. Water quality is tested twice weekly.

The fish are catfish, tilapia and koi. The plants grown include lettuce, tomatoes, turnip greens, mustard greens, red cabbage, cauliflower and herbs such as lavender, peppermint and dill.

Adams said tilapia are a better fish to use than catfish because “they produce a lot more poop,” which is “great for growing plants.” She said that makes the growing process quicker and produces plants of a higher quality.

The class produces about three crops a year. Adams said students take some vegetables home. Others are delivered to the Central Office or given to other teachers.

She said she would like to be able to sell the produce - taking orders from teachers at other schools, and packaging and delivering items - to make money for the program.

Adams called the class a “purposeful elective” and said she may lose a few students early in the year who aren’t willing to do the work.

However, a lot of students who never thought they would be interested in something like this, and only took her class because they couldn’t find another elective, end up loving it. She said her favorite part of the class is watching the students enjoy science.

Hugh Hammer of the Aquaculture Education and Development Center at Gadsden State said field trips are part of the workshop so teachers can see top-caliber programs like Boaz’s.

“To see something like this is really inspiring,” he said.

Hammer said there are other aquaponics programs in the state, but few are as exceptional as Boaz’s, which he called a “model program.” He said most are at the high school level; Boaz’s is the only one he knows of on the middle school level.

Burke Smejkal, a teacher from Oregon, said he offers a similar program at his school, but was impressed with Boaz’s setup.

Tyler Thompson of West End High School said once she figures out how it works, she would like to try to start a program there.

Adams said she is blessed to have administrators who understand “hands-on learning” is more valuable for students than sitting quietly in a desk with a textbook, learning about fish. It gives them “a little more of that freedom to be in charge of their own learning.” She said it also exposes them to alternative methods of producing food that are going to be needed in the future.

She said the greenhouse teaches students life skills, including how to respond when something doesn’t work the way it is supposed to. She said they learn perseverance and gain self-confidence.

Adams said next year, she would like to expand to an outdoor garden on which the fish refuse can be used.

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Information from: The Gadsden Times, https://www.gadsdentimes.com


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