Like most middle school students, the 6th, 7th and 8th graders in Cassandra Hunt’s environmental science class at Neptune Middle School often benefit from practical exercises.
For particularly challenging or complicated subjects, it helps to go beyond dry facts and show students how their lessons apply to the world around them, Hunt said.
“I often have students who come into my class saying that they hate science. But by the time they leave, they are saying, ‘Wow. I actually love this,'” Hunt said. “It makes a big difference, providing those opportunities to engage.”
Brookdale engineering student Rhiannon Long has long felt the same way. This summer, as part of a NASA-sponsored fellowship program, Long decided to show off the creativity and real-world impact of engineering by building an interactive aquaponic system for use in Hunt’s class.
The system, essentially a 30 gallon fish tank connected to a three-foot-long “grow bed,” uses fish waste to fertilize herbs, vegetables or other types of plants. The grow bed, in turn, acts as a filter for the fish tank, creating a sustainable, environmentally friendly system of farming fish and growing crops.
“You are getting a double crop – the fish and the plants – in a small space, using about 80 percent less water than you would typically use,” Long said. “All you really need to do is check the PH balance and add fish food.”
The classroom setup is a scaled-down version of the industrial aquaponic systems increasingly being used by fish producers and farmers across the globe. The goal, Long said, is to show students how engineering and scientific principles are used to solve large-scale problems and make the world a better place.
“You can see how the waste, instead of just running off into a stream, is being recycled and used to grow life,” Long said. “But what I’m really hoping is that they ask, ‘How can we make this system better? How can we tweak it?’ At that point, they’ll be thinking like an engineer.”
Long worked with Hunt to assemble the system in her classroom on Aug. 5, and will return to add about five goldfish to the tank on Aug. 12. According to Hunt, the system and its fishy inhabitants will be a welcome instructional aid for her 400-plus students.
“They are going to love it,” Hunt said. “They all love animals, and they have probably never seen anything like this. We’re going to be talking a lot about nutrient cycling and the water cycles, and we are going to connect all that with the food chain. This will kind of tie everything together nicely.”
Long’s project is the first in a series of community outreach initiatives that will be rolled out this year as part of a $70,000 STEM grant program, awarded to Brookdale earlier this year by NASA and the New Jersey Space Grant Consortium.
The grant program is designed to encourage women, minorities and local middle school students to pursue careers in a wide range of STEM fields, which are expected to add a total of one million new jobs by 2022. As of 2013, more than half of all scientists and engineers in America were white males.
“These jobs pay well, and they allow you to make a difference in the world,” Long said. “We need more females and minorities in these companies and these industries, bringing good new ideas to the table. And it starts at the lower levels. All it takes is a teacher or a professional to reach out to a young student and say, ‘You can do this.'”
Learn more about STEM programs at Brookdale by visiting the STEM Institute webpage.
Check out more photos of the aquaponic system build here.