Aquaponics in STEM Education
By Julie Flegal-Smallwood
According to Economic Modeling Specialists International (2017), STEM jobs will grow 13% between 2017 and 2027, while other career options will grow 9%. In addition, STEM jobs have a median salary of almost twice that of non-STEM jobs. The majority of STEM careers require at least some college, and most students, regardless of level, consider math, science, and other similar classes to be the hardest and most challenging. At the college level, this is often the reason many of my students are ready to graduate but still need to fulfill a college-level mathematics requirement. This is particularly true for low-income, minority, underprepared, or first generation college students.
Aquaponics continues to be a content area which easily blends many aspects of STEM, and can turn “I can’t” attitudes into “I can”. It allows students to be engaged in a real-world, important application of STEM. Redlands Community College in El Reno, OK has a robust Aquaponics program associated with two degrees and a certificate program related to Agricultural Sustainability.
Last year, I had a non-traditional (in almost every sense of the word) student who sat on the back row the first night of class, and looked as if he might bolt out the door at our break time. As a 36-year old Marine veteran, who also happened to be Native American and a first generation college student, Jason was dubious. He took the class only because he needed a 4-hour class to round out his schedule, and didn’t think it would have much “science and math stuff”.
With each class period he became more engaged, and by midterm asked if he could design a system for his home as his research requirement. Late at night, I would get text messages with pictures of the welding he had been doing or some tanks he had found to use in his homegrown approach. Our schedule included Saturday lab days and field trips, and he asked to bring his wife and children so they
could learn more about his new passion. By the time we reached fish dissection, his 9-year old daughter was fixture in the class as well.
A year later, his life is much different. Instead of wondering if he could complete community college, he has upped his goals and wants to get a graduate degree in Microbiology or Chemistry, and hopes to work in the Aquaponics industry. In the meantime, he has three systems at home, is working on another one, and is a permanent volunteer in our greenhouse. He credits aquaponics at helping him break through significant PTSD issues, giving him a goal, and passing on some excitement to his five children, three of whom are girls.