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STEM in the classroom

FDMS students learn aquaculture

-Messenger photo by Kelby Wingert
Gavin Davis, a Fort Dodge Middle School eighth grader, attaches a new thermometer to the koi fish tank of the aquaponics system as classmate Jaxson Dencklau and teacher Shanna Black supervise on Monday morning.

Students in Shanna Black’s Talented and Gifted and Discovery classes are getting first-hand experience growing plants and raising fish right in their classroom at Fort Dodge Middle School.

The aquaponics program — which is a combination of aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (growing plants without soil) — was developed by Wartburg College Professor Michael Bechtel and called “Ioponcis.” Black applied for a grant from the Iowa Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Council in the spring to bring the project to her classroom.

The aquaponics project creates a controlled micro-ecosystem for year-round hands-on learning.

On Monday morning, eighth grader Aidan Russell peered into the fish tank at the orange koi fish he was assigned to observe, making note of any damage on its scales, changes of its size or its colors and anything else noteworthy.

On the side of the tank is a strip of masking tape with each inch marked off to help the students estimate the size of their fish. Currently, the fish are about 3 months old, Black said.

-Messenger photo by Kelby Wingert
Fort Dodge Middle School eighth grader Aidan Russell observes his koi fish and takes notes on changes he’s noticed over the past week. The koi fish are part of the aquaponics system in Shanna Black’s classroom at FDMS.

“They’re learning about the ecosystem, the nitrate cycle, growing plants,” Black explained.

The fish tank sits on the floor of the classroom, with a shelf of plants situated about a foot above. A water filtration system carries water from the fish tank into the reservoir for the plants. Volcanic rocks, along with the plants and their roots help filter the water and convert the ammonia to nitrates, which the plants then consume before the filtered water trickles back down to the fish tank. Some plants are set in the cover for the fish tank lid so that the fish can feed directly on the roots.

Right now, the class is growing plants like basil, mint, catnip, romaine lettuce, parsley, ornamental cabbage and kale.

“Some of the students mentioned growing some lettuce and stuff and then being able to make a salad to eat at the end,” Black said.

Students also test the water to check its ammonia levels each day.

-Messenger photo by Kelby Wingert
A variety of plants, including lettuces, herbs and grasses, are thriving in the aquaponics system in Shanna Black’s classroom at Fort Dodge Middle School.

“I’ve learned how important everything is (in an ecosystem),” said eighth grader Braden Kammerer. “If you removed bacteria or the plants, none of this would actually work.”

In observing the fish for the past week, Kammerer has noticed that they seem pretty nervous and have been hiding in a corner of the tank.

“They’re still kind of getting used to their new home,” he said.

The five fish have yet to be named, but each grade level of TAG has been able to suggest names that will be voted on this week.

Once the five kois are full size, they won’t be able to stay in Black’s classroom tank because it will be too crowded. She said the aqua farm that provided the fish will help rehome them when the time comes.

Black has also applied for a grant from the organization Pets in the Classroom to help cover the cost of supplies to keep the koi happy and healthy.

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