New Smyrna students learn in outdoor classroom

Jun 1, 2023
(Left-right. 8th grade students, Jacob, Jesse and Payton, get fish “kisses” from the tilapias growing in the aquaponic tank. Thinking the boys’ fingers are food, the fish come to the surface of the water and nibble on the tips of their fingers. (LINDA CALDWELL)

NEW SMYRNA BEACH | Class got a little fishy for middle school students at Sacred Heart Catholic School in New Smyrna Beach, as they participated in a yearlong, hands-on lesson in aquaponics.

Aquaponics is a self-sustainable garden system that uses tubes and pumps to circulate wastewater from fish to plants. The plants draw nutrients from the fish waste and filter the water which is then circulated back to the fish. No chemicals are used in the process. Fish food, baking soda and salt maintain the chemical balance of the water.

The Sacred Heart aquaponics project kicked off two years ago with a 10-gallon fish tank, a goldfish named “Smarty,” and a fourth-grade class eager to learn. Classroom studies were augmented with lessons from the Florida Department of Agriculture.

Two science teachers, Barbara Panagis and Pamela Walker, spearhead and oversee the project. “This project provides students hands-on learning in math, science, and business,” Panagis said. “They are also learning how to care for the earth and to be good stewards of God’s creations.”

Today, thanks to a grant funded by the USDA through the Florida Department of Agriculture, the school now boasts a system with a 250-gallon tank, 60 tilapias, and a four-foot by eight-foot growing table now filled with fresh basil. The smaller system is used to start seedlings in the seed pod garden. Once plants sprout and become two to three inches tall, they are moved to the larger garden fed by the bigger aquaponics system. The school’s intent is to grow the project along with the students.

“Two years ago, we built the first system and the students (then in fourth grade) learned about aquaculture and aquaponics,” Panagis said. “This year, they are learning to maintain and run the system, checking the water and testing chemicals, and keeping the system clean. Next year, we will add bookkeeping to the project so the students can learn the business side of, eventually, selling plants and fish. Our goal is to have them go back to the beginning and teach the whole school when they are in eighth grade.”

The program has not been without challenges. Eighth-grader Sea shared the truths about an event known as “The Spearmint Incident.”

“Somehow, a spearmint plant took root in the garden and completely overgrew,” she said. “We didn’t know how it got in there. It appeared one day and kept growing. It pretty much took over everything. We had a massive spearmint plant and five baby basil plants.”

All-in-all, the aquaponics project has proven to be a success.

“I really like how it is hands-on and you can look at the fish and the plants and see the growth over the weeks,” said Ellen, a sixth grader. “So instead of learning about it on a screen or in a textbook, it is real, and you can learn a lot.”

By Linda Caldwell, Special to the Florida Catholic, June 1, 2023