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BANNER, December 2014: Small Fish, Big Lessons

One of the many highlights of our new Lower School is the fabulous 350-gallon fish tank complete with as many as 10 fascinating species of tropical fish. But those aren’t the only aquatic creatures that have found a home in the Division’s space and are doing amazing things. Just outside Mrs. Evans’ office, 10 goldfish are hard at work as part of the Lower School Aquaculture Design Challenge.

The aquaculture system, a project-based learning collaboration, is an effort that involves all Lower School grades and classes.  It grew from a challenge by the science department. “This project represents our response to the Aquaculture Design Contest issued by Dr. Oettinger in advance of the Sustainability Fair.  Each division was to produce an aquaculture system, with a budget of $100, that was to be judged by a panel at the Fair, based on a number of criteria,” explains Will Barker, Assistant Kindergarten teacher and designer and faculty leader of the project.

Will, along with science teachers C.J. Bell, Annie Johnson, and Henry Oettinger traveled last summer to the Cape Eleuthera Institute (CEI) on the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas leading a group of approximately 30 eighth grade Brookwood students. During the summer moths, CEI puts together educational programs that immerse students in authentic marine science research and sustainable living. Students learned about coral reef and mangrove ecology, and experienced daily trips into the field to more deeply explore these enrivonments. The students also particiated in lion fish, conch, and tidal flats research with scientists working at CEI. Among the many things they observed and learned about were working aquaculture systems. All four educators agreed that, with tweaking, this was a project they could bring home to Brookwood students.

“During our trip to The Island School, we were exposed to a number of different aquaculture/aquaponic systems of varying shapes and sizes," says Will, who is in his fourth year working at Brookwood.  "Although in many cases the fish are part of the harvest as well, we were inspired and collectively wanted to get something going here at Brookwood.  The concept also worked nicely with the theme of this year's Sustainability Fair.”

And so, Henry Oettinger, as the Head of Sustainability at Brookwood and lead faculty organizer of the Sustainability Fair, challenged the Lower, Middle and Upper Schools to devise their own sustainable system.

Will teamed up with Technology Integration Specialist Joe LePain to research and assemble the system. Having agreed that the construction phase was beyond the ability of Lower School students, Will explains what he and Joe devised: “The Lower School Aquaculture Design challenge is a small-scale, portable aquaculture system.  It consists of a 10-gallon freshwater fish tank with 10 goldfish, a submersion pump which pumps water up to a reservoir, a raft that floats in the reservoir and holds up to 60 sprouts and growing medium, a gravity fed drain that returns water to the fish tank, and a fluorescent grow light that is adjustable for height as the sprouts grow.

 “The purpose is, quite simply, to grow plants," Will says. “As the fish eat and produce waste in their tank, the resulting nutrients in the water are used by the plants to grow, and in turn the plants filter the water before it returns to the fish tank, creating a mutually beneficial cycle.” The plants were then fed to Elliot, the Kindergarten bunny.

As the system began to be functional, each grade had a particular job and responsibility for the project. 

“For our first crop, which was an all Lower School effort, PreK and Kindergarten were responsible for the planting, Grade 1 was in charge of feeding the fish, Grade 2 handled the daily water testing, and Grade 3 worked with me to coordinate the daily feeders and water testers. The students played a leadership role,” explains Will. Twice during the project – once at the beginning and once at the end of the initial project – the entire division gathered to learn about the status of the fish, the tank, the plants and any problems that had come up.

Following the kick-off, working on the project was optional. First, second and third grade students had the opportunity to work with Will to monitor and keep the system running well. “Students understood that they would have to give up some of their free time in order to be involved.  We met on Fridays during morning recess.” A group of about 10 students from each grade, Grades 1 through 3, committed to working on the project.

With Phase I of the project behind them and proof of the sustainability of their system, Lower Schoolers and Will are now embarking on new goals for their aquaculture system, specifically growing new plants for new purposes.

“With the success of our first crop and the relative sustainability of the system, our plans are to continue to use it to sprout and grow plants.  Second grade just planted herbs for their chickens, which are sprouting now.  Next, third grade will use it as part of a nutrition unit.  And PreK and first grade have also expressed interest in projects for the coming months. So for now anyway, our the system is a fixture in the Lower School!”

"’Mrs. Evans, do you know that fish poop helps plants grow?’ Ask anyone in Lower School just how the aqua project works and you will be treated to a great explanation about waste, water transfer, nourishing plants, light and root systems,” says Head of Lower School Nancy Evans. “We have come a long way since Will and Joe began this project, and plants are growing in our aquaculture garden.  Elliot, the bunny, and the chickens love the sprouts.  Most importantly, a hands-on project has taken root and is now serving a need within the community.”