Sustainable Agriculture: Instruction, Application, and Community Outreach Utilizing Recirculating Aquaponics Systems

Project Overview

Project Type: Youth Educator
Funds awarded in 2013: $2,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Manager:
Dr. Kevin Savage
Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy

Information Products


  • Vegetables: greens (leafy), greens (lettuces)
  • Additional Plants: herbs


  • Crop Production: fertilizers, seed saving
  • Production Systems: aquaponics, hydroponics

    Proposal abstract:

    Project Abstract
    This project will focus on recirculating aquaponics systems as a closed-loop form of sustainable agriculture. Aquaponic gardening as a sustainable agriculture method is not a new method, having been refined and implemented on a large scale at the University of the Virgin Islands some 30 years ago. It is, however, a relatively new teaching tool in secondary science classrooms. We utilize aquaponics systems to teach and reinforce science concepts that are intimately related to sustainable agriculture, all within a traditional high school course sequence: botany, seed germination, plant growth, pollination, biogeochemistry and plant nutrients (Biology), biogeochemistry of natural systems, and chemistry of aquatic systems (Chemistry), biogeochemical cycling, urban agriculture, and sustainable agriculture (Environmental Science). Over the course of a four-year curriculum, students learn the basics of aquaponics as a method of sustainable agriculture, and then have the opportunity to apply their knowledge through the design, construction, operation, and monitoring of a fully-functioning aquaponics system. The upper level students also explore the “end products” of sustainable agriculture through exposure to “food deserts”, and the connection between access to fresh produce and protein and effects of lack of good nutrition on the overall health and fitness of those who lack access.

    Detailed Project Description.
    The funds requested in this proposal would be used to construct and facilitate initial operation of a large vertical tower aquaponics system. To date, students and faculty at Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy (CHCA) have constructed four operational aquaponics gardening systems: two deep-water culture systems with floating raft beds, one system with media-filled grow beds, and one vertical system with grow columns. A nutrient-film technique (NFT) system is under construction. The existing systems are relatively small in size, and utilize 50- and 75-gallon aquariums to support the fish. The proposed system will utilize a 200-gallon stock tank for the fish; the larger biomass of fish will also support a more extensive vegetable/produce growing capacity.

    As a part of the semester-long sustainable agriculture curriculum detailed in "Specific practices learned" (below), students will (1) provide preliminary designs for the new system, and then work together to finalize the details of system design, (2) complete fabrication and construction of the system under faculty supervision, learning basic carpentry and plumbing skills along the way, (3) select and plant seeds in starter pots, and transfer the seedlings to the tower systems to grow to maturity, (4) operate, maintain, and monitor the system to ensure overall health of the fish and plants, (5) harvest the greens and produce as each plant matures, (6) recover, process and save seeds from the harvested produce to provide the seed stock for subsequent plantings, and (7) compare the performance of the various aquaponics systems operating in the classrooms. This project is a necessary step toward completion of our ultimate goal of constructing and operating a commercial-sized system as an outreach to the community. Additionally, the proposed system will be utilized to support on-going independent student and faculty research on various aspects of aquaponics systems.

    The funds requested in this proposal will be used to purchase all of the components to build the vertical tower system (e.g., stock tank for fish, pump, plumbing components, vertical grow towers), the initial purchase of fish to stock the system and food for one year, and water test kits to support monitoring of water quality. Labor for system construction will be a part of curricular content, and will be completed by students under the direction of faculty; as such, there will not be any expenditure of funds for labor.

    Specific practices learned. 
    The following topics related to Sustainable Agriculture are addressed in the classroom, and are explored through (a) lecture, (b) demonstration, and (c) hands-on activities:

    1. Global Change: Unit includes global population growth and feeding a growing population;
    2. Methods of Agriculture: Traditional vs. Sustainable
    3. Heirloom/Open-Pollinated Seeds vs. Genetically-Modified Organism Seeds: Benefits & disadvantages of each
    4. Introduction to Aquaculture and Hydroponics: Sustainable agriculture systems
    5. Introduction to Aquaponics: Combining the best features of aquaculture and hydroponics
    6. Aquaponics Basics & System Design: Includes system construction by students
    7. Nitrogen Cycling & the Role of Nitrifying Bacteria: Includes microscopy and bacteria identification
    8. Seed Planting, Germination, and Transplanting: Students select crops, and grow plants from seed; they are responsible for all steps from planting through transplanting into the aquaponics system
    9. Aquaponics System Operation and Maintenance: Includes student monitoring of key water quality parameters, maintaining automatic feeding of fish, and water levels throughout the system
    10. Harvesting of Fruiting Plants, Herbs, and Leafy Greens
    11. Seed Recovery, Processing, and Saving: Emphasis on seed recovery to ensure seed stock for sustainability and subsequent planting.

    The proposed project at CHCA will impact students by increasing their awareness that access to healthy food is an issue in distant locations, but is also a regional and local issue. The curriculum, already under development and partially implemented, will guide the students through the food system and provide them the opportunity to compare and contrast traditional and sustainable agriculture systems. The primary piece in bolstering their understanding of sustainable agriculture is their intimate involvement in every phase of a designing, constructing, operating, and maintaining a closed-loop, sustainable agriculture system, namely aquaponics.

    Short-term community impact will come through interactions with local organizations like Gabriel’s Place, a ministry located near CHCA that uses aquaponics to help provide fish, vegetables, and other produce to supplement food resources in a low-income urban community near downtown Cincinnati. The relationship with Gabriel’s Place is established, and a January 2013 winter term course offering at CHCA on urban agriculture will utilize facilities at Gabriel’s Place, including their aquaponics system. This will allow us to formalize a plan for CHCA students and faculty to use their experience with aquaponics in the classroom to assist the staff of Gabriel’s Place to help meet the needs of the community.

    Resources Used.

    Aquaponics Association (Sylvia Bernstein, Adam Cohen),
    The Civic Garden Center of Cincinnati (Sam Dunlap, School Garden Coordinator),
    Gabriel’s Place, Avondale, OH (Troy Frasier),

    Aquaponic Gardening (2011), Sylvia Bernstein, New Society Publishers, Canada
    Recirculating Aquaculture, 2nd Ed. (2007), M.B. Timmons & J.M. Ebeling, Cayuga Aqua Ventures
    Hydroponics: A Practical Guide for the Soilless Grower (2005), J.B. Jones, CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL
    The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), Michael Pollan, The Penguin Press, New York, NY
    The Gift of Good Land (1981), Wendell Berry, Counterpoint Press, CA

    Aquaponic Gardening (2012), Sylvia Bernstein, Udemy On-Line Courses,
    Nutrients for Life (2007), BSCS & Nutrients for Life Foundation, Colorado Springs, CO,
    Teaching the Food System (2010), Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, Baltimore, MD,

    World in the Balance (2004), NOVA,
    Dirt: The Movie (2009), Common Ground Press,
    Fresh (2009), Ana Sofia Jones,
    King Corn (2007), Mosaic Films,
    Polyface Farm (2004), Joel Salatin and Polyface Inc.,

    Peer-Reviewed Journal Articles:
    Students will read and summarize a variety of aquaponics-related articles by such authors as Jim Rakoczy and Clyde Tamaru to better understand research involving sustainable agriculture.

    a. An aquaponics-based sustainable agriculture curriculum for secondary (high school) educators will be developed. The curriculum will include modules to explore core science concepts as specifically applied to aquaponics, including, but not limited to:
    - biology (aquatic ecosystems, botany, photosynthesis / cellular respiration),
    - microbiology (role of nitrifying bacteria, slide preparation and staining for identification)
    - chemistry (chemistry of natural waters, acid-base reactions in natural systems, oxidation-reduction in natural systems)
    - environmental science (global population and sustainable agriculture, food deserts and urban agriculture, aquaponics system design, system operation and maintenance, basics of planting-germination-growth-harvesting)

    b. Prepare and submit abstracts for presentation of curriculum, classroom activities, and student/faculty research at professional meetings (e.g., Aquaponics Association 2013 Annual Conference – Milwaukee; National Science Teachers Association);

    c. Program development and presentation through the Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati (Mr. Sam Dunlap, School Garden Coordinator);

    d. Preparation and submittal of manuscripts related to curriculum design, student research, and faculty research to peer-reviewed journals for publication.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.