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BOYS AND GIRLS CLUB KIDS COMBINE FISH AND PLANTS IN UNIQUE LEARNING EXPERIENCE

This summer, along with young minds, great things are growing at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Pueblo County.  Students at Risely attend to an Aquaponics tank

Namely, little fish and lush edible plants.

Together.

It’s called aquaponics, and it’s part of the educational activities taking place at the East Side Clubhouse located inside Risley International Academy of Innovation.

The aquaponics process is a cooperative one, with the small fish sharing space with planted seeds positioned at the top of the tank. The discharge from the fish serves as nourishment for the plants  (peas, basil, alfalfa sprouts), which in turn clean the water for the tank’s little inhabitants.

It’s a symbiotic relationship that demonstrates to the children the interconnectivity of the environment, with fish, plants and bacteria interacting in a living ecosystem. Aquaponics also imparts the importance of stewardship and the care needed to sustain life: in this instance, the guppies who call the tank home.

As part of a grant-funded I Will Projects undertaking, participating Club Kids were given a tank and kit to set up at home. This, East Side Club Director Patience Ruiz said, has added an enlightening component to the process.

“My son is in it,” said Director Ruiz. “So last night, we were able to harvest the peas, put them in our own salad, and he was able to talk about what he learned and what he’s growing next.

“It’s a really neat experience to see it come full circle after going through the different cycles: how to get the habitat ready, learning how to introduce the fish into the habitat, seeing the baby fish hatch, which then have to be cared for, and then growing their own food.”

At the Club House, twice-weekly virtual engagements are provided by Susan Finzel, an Education Specialist with I Will Projects.

“The Indoor Farming Innovation Zone’s Aquaponics Mission '21 program is important because it emphasizes STEAM principles using a fun, hands-on method to grow plants for food,” said Mrs. Finzel. “Participants get their own mini fish tank/grow system to set up and care for, which builds confidence, empathy, responsibility and curiosity. 

“Since the pandemic began, I know that youth have been yearning for interesting, innovative activities. Most kids don't have a clear understanding of how food is grown, to feed an ever increasing population, so the IFIZ program provides an introductory understanding of aquaponics and how this method can contribute to a healthy diet in a sustainable way.”

Mrs. Finzel provides virtual instruction to a studentMrs. Finzel’s instruction is coupled with hands-on care of the “Club House tank” by a rotation of children who have honed their caretaking duties by doing their “home” work.

“The fish fertilize the plants,” said Maleah, 11. “But it takes a lot of work to make sure the fish are OK. You have to make sure they are always fed, and feed them at the right time. And you can’t overfeed them, or else your fish will die. 

“That’s how my fish died this time.”

Maleah said one of the biggest takeaways from the program is that soil isn’t needed for plant growth.

“They can live on water,” she added.

For Xavier, 11, raising the plant-sustaining fish is a highlight of the project.

“The funnest part is watching the fish,” said Xavier, 11. “At home, I have 4 fish, but currently, only two have names: Felisha and Knuckles. I recently cut my peas and sesame seeds and put them in a salad.

“It tasted good.”

As part of the curriculum, participants have the opportunity to virtually visit with a NASA plant scientist from Kennedy Space Center and pose questions about growing lettuce on the International Space Station. 

The project also has allowed participants to become guppy experts.

“The males have bigger tales and the female is smaller and has almost no color,” Xavier explained. “It’s just plain silver.”

“The babies are micro-small,” added Maleah. “Sometimes, you can barely see them.”

Although the Club Kids are starting out in aquaponics on a small scale, Maleah said the sky’s the limit, as long as space isn’t a factor.

“The bigger the tank is, the more fish you can fit,” she said. “Our Club House tank can only hold 4 to 5 fish, but if I had a huge tank, we could fit like 100 fish, and that means the more food you can grow.”