Aquaponics in the Classroom: The Star Science Teacher and her 3 Water Gardens

Food education should start early and there’s no better place to incorporate it than in the classroom.

Every year, Adrienne Sandstedt, a 7th-grade science teacher in Long Beach, CA, takes a group of her students to the Aquarium of the Pacific on Earth Day.

Her students set up a booth as part of a celebration the aquarium hosts to teach the public about how to live more sustainably. Among the non-profit organizations and high schools also exhibiting at the event, her middle schoolers’ booth stands out for multiple reasons. Picture a crew of confident, knowledgeable 12-year-old students-come-urban farmers teaching crowds of people about the unique system known as aquaponics. It’s a sight to see and inspires her to keep going year after year.


Getting into Aquaponics

Adrienne was raised in New York City, so she’s not exactly what you’d call a farm person. So when her friend, Nancy, called her up one day six years ago and proposed that she apply for a grant to get an aquaponics system installed in her classroom, her first reaction was aqua-what? Her friend then explained that aquaponics was a sustainable farming method that combined hydroponics (growing food in nutrient-rich water) and aquaculture (fish farming). Immediately intrigued, she wondered how she could make it work.

Luckily, it fit in perfectly with her school’s Next Generation Science Standards curriculum, which focuses on integrating the concepts of cycles of matter and flows of energy between the physical earth and life. She decided to go for it, and for the last six years has had a 50-gallon aquaponics system as well as three Back to the Roots Water Gardens.


In the Classroom

In Adrienne’s classroom, the Water Garden is an important tool for exploring matter transfer and energy flows. First of all, the Water Garden is interactive, allowing students to set up experiments and see changes day to day. The class studies the nitrogen cycle through watching how nutrients and energy flows through the system like: what happens when we don’t add plants? How does light affect the system? What if we grow something different?

Aquaponics is a great teaching tool because it facilitates learning beyond the simple seeds + nutrients from fish poop + water = plants equation. It demonstrates how these parts are transferred to one another and the processing that goes on by bacteria to convert that fish poop into nitrates and nitrites.

Her classroom’s three Back to the Roots Water Gardens allow Adrienne to set up experiments for her students to see how tank and plant conditions change with different treatments. They’re also what she brings as exhibits for her students to teach with on Earth Day at the aquarium.


Engaging with Food

At the end of every term, not only have students learned all about aquaponics and transfers of matter and energy, they’ve also been exposed to healthy food.

They grow lettuce, wheatgrass and other greens in their classroom, which helps connect kids to the food they’re eating. Adrienne hosts salad parties in class where they all happily chow down on leafy greens. If you’re a parent, this probably sounds like a miracle. Adrienne’s students see from start to finish all the energy that goes into producing this food, making it all the more rewarding to take a shot of wheatgrass, have a green smoothie or chomp on that salad in the end.

Adrienne is truly a stand-out science teacher. Lessons from her Water Garden and larger aquaponics system stick with kids for years to come.  

The experiences students have in Adrienne’s classroom have influenced them to get involved in science throughout high school and beyond. She has heard from many of her students that they are interested in engaging with their food and have even gotten their families into gardening and aquaponics.

They’ve learned that once you’ve raised crops or tilapia from seed to fully-grown, you don’t waste anything. This is creating more aware, environmentally conscious students, eaters and citizens. Thank you, Adrienne, for all the work that you do and the change you are making for your students and for the world.


Written By Hannah Berris @ Back to the Roots

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