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Food for thought: classroom aquaponics program provides valuable experience for students in Los Angeles

When fish swim together, it’s called a school. When kids learn together, it’s called a school. So, what do we call it when kids and fish are in a school together? University of Southern California Sea Grant calls it the future.

Aquaculture and aquaponics curriculum is not typical for U.S. schools, but with the support of USC Sea Grant and partners, there are now nine schools in Los Angeles that are raising fish in their classrooms as part of the Food for Thought Aquaponics and the Seabass in the Classroom programs. 

According to NOAA’s Office of Aquaculture, 91 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported (and half of that is from aquaculture), leading to a seafood deficit of over $11.2 billion per year. With environmental concerns and a growing population, domestic aquaculture will be necessary to meet food supply needs and avoid the unsustainable harvesting of decreased wild fish stocks. Students will shape this future; and learning about fisheries and food production is key to raising the next generation as informed consumers and a trained workforce.

USC Sea Grant’s aquaculture and aquaponics programs go beyond the science, allowing students to explore the issues of where food comes from in a changing climate, issues of ongoing drought in California, food equity, and how we can sustainably produce enough fresh food for a growing urban population.

The Seabass in the Classroom (SITC) program—led by the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute with a research grant awarded to USC Sea Grant under NOAA’s National Marine Aquaculture Initiative—provided students with a newly developed self-cleaning aquaculture tank and juvenile, 100 day-old, 3-5 in long, white seabass. The students raise (feed, monitor, measure, weigh, and tag) the fish for another 60 days in the classroom, and then, following a health inspection by California Department of Fish and Wildlife, release them into the ocean. USC Sea Grant partners with the teachers for curriculum development, which incorporates fish biology and husbandry, water quality, math, population dynamics, economics, engineering and technology, human impacts on the ocean, and careers in aquaculture fields. The SITC program is now in its third cycle at Port of Los Angeles High School.

Expanding upon the success of the SITC program, USC Sea Grant—in partnership with OurFoods aquaponics and the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies—developed the Food for Thought (FFT) Aquaponics program to provide students and teachers with tools for project-based, environmental, STEM education in K-12 classrooms. Aquaponics is a model of sustainable and organic urban farming that uses very little water, no soil, and produces no waste. The closed-system pumps water in a continuous loop from the fish tank, to the plants, and back to the fish tank. The waste from the fish is converted by microbes into nutrients that fertilize the plants, and the plants, in turn, clean the water as it returns to the fish tank. Students grow lettuce, chard, mint and much more.

Port of Los Angeles High School science teacher, Tim Dikdan, said that he and the students have been surprised and awed by “how hard it is to recreate nature by keeping everything in balance. 

FFT is currently being used in eight public schools in Los Angeles County, and expansion to more schools is underway. Through the program, a classroom receives an aquaponic tank system, fish, plants, training, and curriculum from USC Sea Grant educators, including the history of aquaponics, water chemistry and elemental cycling, photosynthesis, fish anatomy and physiology, environmental impacts of food production, food deserts and food equity, and careers in aquaponics. Aquaponics, in particular, can work in homes that do not have yard space for a garden and help alleviate “fresh food deserts” in areas that lack fresh fruits, vegetables and other whole healthy foods.

As a result of the programs, student-driven extracurricular activities have developed including an Instagram account, an after school club, an entry at the regional Los Angeles Unified Science Fair, and an open-house experience for their parents where content was presented in English and Spanish for the predominantly Hispanic community.

These innovative, multi-disciplinary programs are engaging families and communities, and this is exactly the type of learning that must happen to develop new, sustainable ways to provide healthy, fresh food for all.

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