Temple University Ambler and Wordsworth Academy build aquaponics partnership

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 Wordsworth Academy in Fort Washington, the Temple University Ambler Aquaponics Lab and Wordsworth administrators are adding a few more elements to the math — students, educators, birds, guinea pigs, turtles, rabbits, chinchillas, snakes and more — to create a system that provides a unique support system for educational programs and an important connection to sustainability and environmental education.

"Our Aquaponics program made a connection with Wordsworth Academy during Temple Ambler's annual EarthFest celebration, which Wordsworth has been a part of for more than a decade. We have been able to mentor some of their students, who have helped me in the Aquaponics Lab during the summer months," said Michael Bavas, Senior Technical Support Specialist in Temple's Computer Services Department who helped spearhead the aquaponics program at Temple Ambler. "Wordsworth has several sustainability projects taking place at their campus. They also have career programs in horticulture and culinary arts. It made perfect sense to work with them to create their own aquaponics system."

Since 1952, Wordsworth Academy has been transforming lives by strengthening families and helping children overcome emotional, behavioral and academic challenges. A private, not-for-profit organization, Wordsworth provides a continuum of education, behavioral health treatment and child welfare services to children, adolescents and families in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Services include two fully licensed schools, programs for children in acute psychiatric crisis and a range of community-based prevention, child welfare and behavioral health services.

According to Bavas, he worked with Bert Johnson, a teacher at W.B. Saul High School, which also participates in EarthFest each year, to develop the right aquaponics system for Wordsworth's greenhouse. Johnson also donated the supplies for the system, Bavas said.

"It is a small, space-saving system that could certainly be built up over time," he said. "It is a 'media bed system' — the media bed for the plants is on top and the fish are in a tank below that. It's a great, cost-effective system for growing any number of types of plants, from basil to aloe."

The new aquaponics system "will be a great asset for our students learning about plants and earth science," said Dan Carlson, Vocational Director at Wordsworth.

"I think this will be a great jumping off point for a variety of potential partnerships and mentoring opportunities between Temple and Wordsworth," he said. "Our older students will be directly involved in supporting and maintaining the system — caring for the plants and fish, troubleshooting the equipment, harvesting. That harvest will used by our culinary arts students in their dishes and provide fresh food for the animals in our animal therapy program."

The animal-assisted intervention and education facility at Wordsworth is a truly special place. All of the animals are rescues. Many of the animals have endured hardship and heartache but have found a loving forever home at Wordsworth, where the students participate in their care and the animals, in turn, elevate their mood, providing a "calming and relaxing connection to nature," said Tracey DePaul, Animal Assisted Therapist at Wordsworth for the past 21 years.

The history of Wordsworth Academy's animal rescue program is one built on a deep sense of compassion and student advocacy, she said.

"We had set up a small companionable 'zoo' at our former New Britain location. Providing a home for rescue animals really happened quite by accident," she said. "We were brought a parrot that had been trained by their owner to bite them to receive a reward — it was a strange, unfortunate situation. We truly didn't know what we could do with the bird because, due to how it was raised, it was always aggressive."

That's when the students at Wordsworth stepped in.

"They advocated for this bird; they wanted to provide him with a home. One student said to me 'Miss Tracey, I bit you when I first came here. You always tell us to look toward the future, not the past,'" she said. "They helped me write the proposal to begin our animal rescue program and they never gave up on our first rescue — it took years, but they helped me rehabilitate him. Many of these animals have been through a lot; the kids see their resilience and take heart from it."

DePaul said she is excited about the potential of the new aquaponics facility to provide "hands-on educational experiences with sustainable concepts."

"With the students caring for the animals here in addition to the fish and the plants in the greenhouse, I think we can work to create a generation of kids that are more connected to the natural world," she said. "It's a great educational tool to enhance any type of learning — geography, math, science, industrial arts. Our students can see what has been created here, experiment with the concepts and designs and go on to build their own at any scale."

According to Bavas, 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. "We're also working with Robbins Park in the Upper Dublin School District to help them develop a small aquaponics system as an education tool."

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."