Two Polk Schools Get Aquaponics Systems Through FDACS
by K. MICHELE TRICE
Support from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is giving ag students in two Polk County schools the chance to experience aquaponics in action.
The word aquaponics is a portmanteau of aquaculture (raising fish and other aquatic animals in tanks) and hydroponics (growing plants without soil). It entails raising fish in tanks of water where plants are also grown. The waste from the fish provides food to the plants, which in turn keep the water clean.
Bok Academy South — a middle school in Lake Wales — and Lake Gibson High School were among the schools chosen to receive a full recirculating aquaculture system, as well as a number of supplementary aquaponic system supplies.
To be eligible for the award, teachers from each school submitted an application, which included a letter stating how the system would be used at their school and what lessons could be taught with it, as well as a letter from an administrator of the school.
“Florida’s aquaculture industry is dynamic and ever growing, but basic awareness of aquaculture is still a critical need in K-12 classrooms,” Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Wilton Simpson said in a press release about the grant.
“By equipping our world-class teachers with aquaculture knowledge and know-how, we can not only offer an engaging hands-on learning opportunity, but we can help meet an increasing demand for skilled aquaculture professionals in Florida.”
Paxton Evans, agricultural biotechnology teacher and FFA advisor at Lake Gibson High School, and Emilyn Sharpless, agriculture teacher and FFA advisor at Bok Academy South, applied for and received the systems for their schools.
Evans and her Lake Gibson students will be receiving their aquaponics tanks late this month, while Sharpless and her students received their system in late August.
“I cannot wait until it comes in,” Evans says. “I knew this was something I wanted to showcase with our students. This is the future of how we will produce fish and plants.”
Sharpless says she knew she wanted to add aquaponics to the school’s program.
“I have a unique facility,” she says. “We are located on a lake, and we have a floating classroom and a boat. The kids can do water samples and discuss water quality issues.”
A donor provided funding for a state-of-the-art greenhouse for Bok Academy South, and the ribbon cutting was earlier this year.
“We’ve changed the face of the way our school looks around our ag program,” Sharpless says.
Evans says a benefit of the aquaponics program is that students will learn skills they will need when they enter the workplace.
“They aren’t just learning in textbooks about this,” Evans says. “They are going to be able to see firsthand how this works. They will be able to test the water quality and adjust the water to make sure everything is running smoothly. They will make the backup water supply when it is time to harvest the fish. They will learn the ins and outs of the system instead of reading a general overview.”
The schools are starting with tilapia in their tanks, and both teachers are planning water-testing labs for their students.
“This will be a great skill for the kids to enter the job force with,” Evans says. In addition, students will be able to grow and sell plants grown in their aquaponics system.
At Bok Academy, Sharpless is planning to grow the same plants in traditional soil, hydroponics, and via aquaponics. The students will be able to view, measure, and assess which method produces the best and fastest growth, amongst other things.
One of her plans is to become certified so that when the fish become too large for the tank, they can sell the fish to local restaurants or community members.
Sharpless says that in Polk County, agriculture programs traditionally focus on livestock — cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats — so having an aquaponics program opens up a whole new side of agriculture that kids in this area don’t get to see. It allows students to learn about the aquaponics industry and understand it in a hands-on manner.
“It gives them a connection with what they are learning in class,” Sharpless says.
Evans says Lake Gibson High is the only high school in Polk with an agricultural biotech program.
“It is really exciting to be able to expand that program,” she says. “It helps make our school that much more unique.”
“We are blessed in Polk County,” Evans says. “There is so much support for our agricultural programs. Without everyone, we wouldn’t be able to be where we are today.”