E Lab’s latest STEAM project is aquaponic garden

Northwestern State University’s Elementary Lab School held an opening and butterfly release for the school’s new aquaponic garden, a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) collaboration in which students and faculty from the university assisted the youngsters in engineering and construction of aquaponic system.

The project incorporated elements of natural science, environmental science, ecology, bioengineering, math, botany, language arts, art and music centered around the school’s garden. Some students were part of the engineering team that produced the aquaponic system while others on an art team painted a colorful mural describing the aquaponic system and another group wrote and performed two original songs that explained how the system works.

Hayden Sellers, a fifth grader, described to a visitor in detail how the pillars of an aquaponic system – water, plants and fish – work together to grow lettuce in a soil-less environment and how tubes engineered throughout work to keep the process going. Water from a tank in which fingerling catfish donated by the Natchitoches National Fish Hatchery live is filtered through the plants and eventually returns to the fish to mimic a natural ecosystem.

Aquaponics gardening uses 90 percent less water than traditional gardens, is chemical free and produces its own fertilizer. Aquaponic gardening has been practiced since about 1000 AD, requires minimal labor and can be grown year-round, producing 10 times more crops than traditional gardening.

To cap off the day that included an unveiling of the aquaponic system, tours and explanations of how fish and plans work together to produce food and clean water, students released butterflies into the school garden and fifth graders performed the two songs they wrote, one in collaboration with university students from the School of Creative and Performing Arts.

“Many goals were achieved through this project,” said Lisa Wiggins, who spearheaded the project. “Our students learned various ways to acquire information. They learned and sharpened research skills with aquaponics as the topic. They also had a vision and created a plan to see it through. Aquaponics was of high interest because of the benefits this type of gardening provides. Seeing it come together as they were learning on so many levels was quite rewarding.

Wiggins wrote grants to fund the project and will continue to see out resources to make enhancements in the future.

“Joining forces with NSU’s Department of Engineering Technology and Natchitoches National Fish Hatchery was essential for this project to work because of the many challenges faced,” Wiggins said. “We customized a 125 gallon tank with a pumping system to fit into a 8 x 6 greenhouse with two grow beds. The Engineering students assisted with the mechanical elements while [Hatchery Manager] Grant Webber provided assistance and resources with the fish component.”

In addition to Webber and the Natchitoches National Fish Hatchery, Wiggins also thanked NSU Elementary Lab Principal Carol Coleman, Dr. Jafar Al-Sharab, head of NSU’s Department of Engineering Technology, Cane River Glass, Natchitoches Wood Preserve, Van Wiggins and Gray Walk Farms.

Pictured above: Fifth grade students at NSU Elementary Lab School offered tours and information about the aquaponic garden they built during the garden’s unveiling May 16. The project incorporated elements of science, technology engineering, art and math. From left are project coordinator Lisa Wiggins with students Lexi Shaw, Hayden Sellers, Hailey Jarnigan, Ehern Guidroz, and Jade Barfield.

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