EarthFest 2019 Takes Visitors on an Aquaponics Adventure

EarthFest 2019 Takes Visitors on an Aquaponics Adventure

Plants + Fish = Self-Sustained Farming. It’s a fairly simple equation — fish waste becomes food for plants and the plants naturally filter the water back into the fish tank — for an innovative approach to agriculture that can be economically undertaken in spaces large and small.  

At EarthFest 2019 on Friday, April 26, visitors will be taken on an “Aquaponics Adventure” thanks to a collaboration between six organizations and schools, including the Temple University Ambler Aquaponics lab, to share a diversity of projects and activities being undertaken throughout the region.

“Aquaponics addresses large scale problems, such as water conservation and overfishing. If it’s an indoor system, there is no need for pesticides,” said Susan Sacks, Manager of Research and Grants at Temple University Ambler. “This is a very healthy way to raise fish and grow plants. As a method for farming, it is becoming more and more prevalent throughout the world to address the agricultural needs of a growing population.”

While traditional commercial aquaponics gardens focus on harvesting both plants and fish, the Ambler aquaponics lab is focused entirely on research, exploring different types of aquaponics set-ups and finding the best balance between fish, plants and nutrients, said Sacks. The lab is fully accredited by the AAALAC (Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care).

“At EarthFest, we wanted to showcase how aquaponics is not only used in farming and sustainability, but in education as well,” she said. “Some of our middle and high school student visitors will have the opportunity to tour our aquaponics lab while everyone at EarthFest 2019 will be able to interact with several organizations that are focused on the study of aquaponics.”

In 50 years, the Earth’s population is estimated to reach 10 billion people, said Erin McCool, Director of Education and Strategic Initiatives at Riverbend Environmental Education Center.

“Modern food systems can’t handle a population of that size. Aquaponics is one of the tools in the toolbox to face this real-world problem and find real world solutions,” she said. “At Riverbend, we use aquaponics as a tool to build STEM skills to, in part, address the challenges to the food system that we will face. We partner with schools and teachers to implement aquaponics as an interactive educational platform to engage students in nature-based STEM learning.”

At EarthFest, Riverbend’s interactive aquaponics station will feature an “ecological mystery” that engages students to use the power of investigation to crack the mystery of Riverbend Island and why some of its major species have recently disappeared. Students will practice skills in investigation, arguing from evidence and exploring aquaponics.

Schools will be an essential part of EarthFest’s Aquaponics Adventure. Ecology students from the Philadelphia Academy Charter High School will present their school’s new BioTech lab, which incorporates a 300-square-foot bio wall and a more than 3,300 gallon aquaponics pond system. The students will also share examples of aquaponics systems they have built for the Academy’s middle school.

The North Montco Technical Career Center horticulture class is currently using aquaponics to grow green, leafy vegetables, herbs and lettuces for the Center’s culinary program. All of their products are sourced from organic materials and are biodegradable, which is then composted in their keyhole garden and vermiculture bin.

Commonwealth Charter Academy (CCA), a public cyber charter school serving 9,500 students across the state, has developed “AgWorks,” a career readiness program that provides hands-on and virtual experience in aquaponics to students.

“Careers in agriculture are in very high demand. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, there will be 75,000 open jobs in agriculture by 2025 in this state alone,” said Samantha Johnson, Director of CCA’s aquaponics program. “With aquaponics, our students are not only learning science and growing in a soilless medium, they are learning to work with people from different backgrounds who may have different approaches and ideas. They are working with an ecosystem where things can and do go wrong — they must work together as a team to come up with solutions.”

Universities and colleges like Temple, Johnson said, have programs in place that are able to scaffold onto what the students are learning at CCA.

“Partnerships with organizations in higher education are essential to provide a variety of avenues for our students to achieve their goals,” she said. “At EarthFest, we will be sharing one of our mobile aquaponics labs and share some of the experiments taking place at AgWorks in real time.”

Back at Temple, Pennsylvania MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science and Achievement), hosted in the state by the University’s College of Engineering, is training teachers and students to solve serious community-level problems. Students in career technical high schools are partnering with Temple University Engineering students to develop an aquaponics system for middle schoolers. This initiative will address the food deserts in North Philadelphia.

According to Michael Bavas, Senior Technical Support Specialist in Temple’s Information Technology Services Department who helped spearhead the aquaponics program at Temple Ambler, building partnerships between Temple and schools is a key goal for the Aquaponics Lab. 

The Office of Sustainability for the Philadelphia School District, for example, has reached out to the Aquaponics Lab “to explore DIY technologies and collaborate with Temple University Ambler to bring aquaponics education to students in their 215 schools.”

One of the great things about aquaponics, Bavas said, “is its versatility.”

“This is something that can be catered to any size growing environment, indoor or outdoor — from a single tank at home with a few fish to warehouse-sized industrial systems,” he said.

One of the main goals of the aquaponics lab, Bavas said, “is to use the system to educate our students and the public.” 

“We want student and community involvement to help create an awareness about aquaponics and its uses. We want to become a resource for community gardeners so that they can develop aquaponics systems of their own,” he said. “Its organic farming that can be set up in almost any space and you can grow food year-round. The plants grow faster and are healthier and there is no run-off — I think is a vital farming technique for today and the years ahead.”

McCool said any time that students are able to get out of the classroom and engage in “an authentic real world experience that connects to what they are learning in the classroom is essential to their educational growth.”

“Field trips can have a monumental impact on children; they can change their view of the world or put them on the path of a lifelong careers,” she said. “Science instruction in middle schools is often limited to just a few hours a week. An event like EarthFest can provide a month or more’s worth of science education.”

Students, Johnson said, “don’t know what they don’t know.”

“When they see other schools and businesses and organizations engaged in environmental efforts it can’t help but get them excited about agriculture, science and sustainability in general,” she said. “Learning about ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ in elementary school sparked something in me that led me onto my career path. Students want to talk about what they’ve learned with their parents, their siblings, their friends — hopefully that spark becomes part of their everyday lives.”