Elementary students learn about sustainable farming through aquaponics program

Students in Mahtomedi, Minnesota are learning about aquaponics through their tilapia farm.

Elementary school students at St. Jude on the Lake Catholic School in Mahtomedi are learning about sustainable farming systems by raising fish and growing plants in an aquaponics system. 

“We, as far as I know, are the only school in Minnesota, elementary [school], that has this aquaponics system,” fifth grade teacher Jill Ryan said. 

The system includes a fish tank filled with tilapia, raised from small fry. The water from the tank goes through a filtration system and eventually ends up in the plant-growing “raft” system where different edible plants grow with their roots in water. The plants filter the water again and then it’s sent back to the tilapia tank creating a sustainable food cycle. 

“[Water from the tank] is good for the plants because it’s fertilizer for the plants that will help it grow,” fifth grader Finbarr said. 

Kindergarten through fifth grade students have different responsibilities in the auqaponics lab. The entire system is run by students who care for the fish, run the water pumps, tend to the plants and collect data. 

“The fifth graders get the responsibility piece of teaching others and then they’re actually learning more from teaching them as well,” Ryan said. 

“It’s more like if something goes wrong, you have to fix it and you have to know how to fix it, but in a book you’re not actually doing it,” fifth grade student Bella said. 

The students will have their first lettuce harvest this week. Ryan says the school has put out a suggestion box for students to recommend what the cafeteria staff should make with the ingredients they grew. 

This spring, the students will harvest the rest of the food and tilapia to make a meal to share together. 

The auqaponics system at St. Jude was made possible thanks to a Minnesota Independent School Forum Grant. The school’s principal says they’re hoping to get another grant to build a greenhouse on the school grounds.