UNK's Nate Bickford and Matt Bice

University of Nebraska at Kearney assistant professors Nate Bickford, left, and Matt Bice look over an aquaponics system on campus. They are teaming up to teach Nebraska middle school teachers how to integrate aquaponics into their classrooms and curriculums.

KEARNEY — The University of Nebraska at Kearney’s Nate Bickford, assistant professor of biology, and Matt Bice, assistant professor of kinesiology and sport sciences, are teaming up to teach middle school teachers how to integrate aquaponics systems into their classrooms and curriculums.

“One of the problems with Nebraska is there are so many food deserts,” Bickford said. “We need to re-learn where food comes from and how easy it is to grow our own food. One of the things we think aquaponics can do is teach that. That’s really, really important.”

A food desert is an area where nutritious food is difficult to find because of unavailability, distance, affordability or limited places to shop.

“If you plant your own food and you see it grow, you learn where food comes from,” Bickford said.

Bice and Bickford hypothesize that growing their own food with aquaponics, a modern agricultural practice that marries aquaculture — the farming of fish and other aquatic organisms — and hydroponics, which is growing plants without soil, will teach children how to make healthier choices.

“It’s really water efficient. It uses about 3 percent of the water traditional farming uses. For produce production, it’s wonderful,” Bickford said. “It’s something you can do on your desktop for enjoyment, and it can even be used for commercial use.”

Teachers representing 18-22 Nebraska rural schools will have the option of using a 30-gallon tank in the classroom or a 250-gallon tank for the school and will choose the plants they grow, including bell peppers, lettuce, herbs, lemons, tomatoes or even houseplants. Bice and Bickford will lead trainings in August, November and May to teach the teachers how to implement aquaponics into the curriculum.

“Aquaponics are a great model system for teaching science because you can teach everything from microbiology to ecology to chemistry. Once students understand the model, it’s easier to learn from rather than introducing a new model in each of the sciences,” Bickford said.

Students could learn about science through nutrient dynamics, behavioral studies on fish, chemistry of water, water balance and more.

“If we can teach teachers how to instruct using aquaponics inside the classrooms, then students will have the ability to grow fruit and vegetables and possibly fish,” Bice said.

Bice and Bickford will measure the effect the new curriculum has on the nutritional choices of kids.

“There are a lot of school health and nutrition programs out there,” Bice said. “This is a very innovative and captivating way to introduce nutrition inside of a classroom.”

Undergraduate students will work on developing the curriculum, and a graduate student will help with the data analysis. The research is funded by Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Post-Secondary Education.

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