Educational aquaponics, specifically named Ioponics, is the combination of aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (growing plants without soil) in an integrated system using aerobic bacteria that transforms fish waste into nutrients for plants. The process involves a hands-on, researchable process of raising aquatic animals and plants in a controlled micro-ecosystem within school walls. The system is coupled with cross-curricular units and ancillaries for the pK-3, 4-8, and 9-12 grade levels and SEP currently has six systems in the district.

Just like the plants and fish within their Ioponics systems, interest in this Scale-Up has grown throughout the Southeast Polk (SEP). They currently have six in the district, ranging from elementary schools to the high school.

Jim Pifer (pictured above), K-12 Science Coordinator, lead the Scale-Up application. “Ioponics has so many uses,” Pifer noted. “Any teacher in the building can use it.” We visited two SEP elementary teachers who incorporated Ioponics into their classroom standards.

The Tale of a Tail

Runnells Elementary: Denise Nesheim, 4th Grade

Science Standard 4-LS1-1
From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes
Construct an argument that plants and animals have internal and external structures that function to support survival, growth, behavior, and reproduction. 

Ms. Nesheim (pictured in the headset) asked a framing question: Which fish tail would you want to have? Students made a selection from a chart.

Next, they watched a short clip on the function of tails. This allowed them to see examples from all around the world and contemplate the difference between ocean and freshwater. Next, Nesheim passed out a guide from the Iowa DNR. Students classified tail types. They also studied the fish in their Ioponics tank.

For the entire lesson, fish tails fascinated everyone, including us visitors. After the class collaboration, discussion, and labeling, Nesheim referred to her original questions: Which caudal fin would you choose? Like all good fishers, students were true to their original tail.


The Awe of a Nature

Mitchellville Elementary: Charlcie Helvey, 3rd Grade

Science Standard — Crosscutting Concept 4: Systems and System Models

A system is an organized group of related objects or components; models can be used for understanding and predicting the behavior of systems.

This was one of Ms. Helvey’s (pictured above in black) first days using Ioponics. Mr. Pifer served as wingman. Students carried clipboards and were instantly engaged with the system.

First, Helvey asked them to observe and draw what they saw. Helvey then asked them to label various details, challenging them to explain how they think the plants at the top might work in conjunction with the fish at the bottom. At the close of day, Pifer chose volunteers to present their ideas.

Outside the Classroom

“We keep tanks in common places when possible, like hallways and community areas,” noted Pifer. “That way every teacher has access, and it also keeps lots of eyes on the tank, ensuring they stay clean and safe.

Pifer also noted there’s an emotional/mental-health benefit to seeing nature every time you walk in the door. He gave this example: “We had a student who was having a hard time coming to school, but now they’re excited to check on the tank every morning.” Happy fish equals happy kids–just an added benefit of Ioponics.

* * *

Thanks to James Pifer for organizing visits with Denise Nesheim and Charlcie Helvey’s classes. If you’re a teacher and would like more info on these lessons, email Pifer for details.