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Teaching Kids How to Grow Their Own Food — With Fish

by on May 24, 2015 2:00 PM

The first pepper of the season wasn't found at a local farm stand or at one of our area farmers markets.

It ripened in Jack Lyke's State High classroom.

Since September Lyke and his students have been harvesting vegetables from their aquaponics system, which has provided a yearlong biology curriculum incorporating STEM education, as well as lessons in horticulture, sustainable agriculture, nutrition, and more.

A 230-gallon, greenhouse aquaponics ecosystem located at South Building and built with a grant from Toshiba serves as a living model for the desktop aquaponics systems students built in Lyke's classroom. A separate Farm-to-School grant provided $1,100 for grow lights, extension cords, power strips, and plugs needed for the desktop systems.

In its simplest terms, aquaponics marries aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (growing plants without soil) in one symbiotic system. Fish waste becomes an organic food source for the plants, which filter water for the fish.

One of the first lessons, though, is that there are actually three "crops" raised in aquaponics: the fish, the plants, and the invisible, yet crucial microbes. These microbes, which naturally exist in all bodies of water, convert the toxic components of fish waste into nutrients for the fish.

At State High, these microbes are thriving. "Our kids are on their fifth crop of lettuce," says Lyke, who has been teaching biology for 19 years. "Our tomato plant is huge; I have dozens and dozens of ripening cherry tomatoes, and the Swiss Chard is coming out of my ears." By April the kids were growing the kind of heat-loving peppers that don't make an appearance in farmers markets until summer.

The year-round production of fresh food is a key component to the project. Through collaborations with the State High social studies teachers and other colleagues, the project challenges students to think about the broader implications of growing a tomato without soil or sunshine.

"By the year 2050 there will be a projected nine-and-a-half-billion people on the planet, and we have to find another way of feeding ourselves," Lyke says. "What we're trying to do here is instill some of this. You don't have to have Monsanto and Tyson make all your food for you."

Completing the cycle from farm — or in this case fish tank — to table, students are participating in an end-of-year taste test that will compare the taste and nutritional value of commercially grown produce, much of it trucked in from California, to the fresh veggies harvested in the classroom. The day will end with a fish-taco feast, prepared in collaboration with the CTC Culinary Arts teacher and his students, using harvested Tilapia and lettuce. No store-bought salsa at this culinary affair: The tacos will be topped from pesto made with the basil harvested a few months ago.

No doubt you'll see pictures of the feast on the Aquaponics at State High Facebook page, which features mouth-watering pictures of lettuce and other harvested veggies and boasts "likes" from every continent but Antarctica. "We're working on it," says Lyke, who keeps a world map in the classroom marked with pins denoting the geographic representation of the page's fans.

For Lyke, it's been a remarkable school year beginning with "Is-he-for-real" looks from his students and ending with an invitation to present his aquaponics project to a national audience of educators at the 2015 No Teacher Left Inside Summer Institute in July in Land O Lakes, Wisconsin.

But his next project may be his most ambitious yet. For the new high school, he's proposing a rooftop greenhouse big enough to sustain an aquaponics system that will provide fresh produce to the cafeteria. "The way it's in the plan, it's right off the hallway with windows all around, so as you're walking down the hallway you can see the greenhouse and what's growing inside."

The project will cost approximately $250,000 and entail widespread community support, perhaps in the form of a donor or donors who will pay for the project before it's scrutinized alongside the building's other costs. "The school board likes the idea, but it always comes down to who gets what, and at some point they have to start making cuts," Lyke says. "I just hope I'm not on the cutting block."

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Michele Marchetti is a freelance writer and the former managing editor of StateCollege.com. Prior to moving to State College, she spent more than 10 years writing for national magazines. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including Fortune, Fortune Small Business, Glamour, U.S. News & World Report, Runner's World, Good Housekeeping, Working Mother, Yoga Life and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MMStateCollege or contact her at [email protected]
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