Try to imagine how a normal, modern-day, high school science classroom looks. If your mind fills with images of beakers, microscopes and memories of dreaded, early-morning labs, then the classrooms of Kevin Savage, a high school environmental science teacher at Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy, Cincinnati, OH, may surprise you. While teaching at the private school, Savage filled his classes with unique tools including aquariums, fish and plants that he uses to teach his students.
Savage, who originally worked in environmental consulting, began teaching chemistry at the school three years ago. Savage now teaches an environmental science AP class and a senior elective that focus on sustainable and urban agriculture, and aquaponics.
In his classes Savage covers traditional farming methods and agriculture, various sustainable techniques, aquaponics, global vs. United States’ food needs, and real-world examples and frames to gauge the economic viability of aquaponics.
“We start the year looking at global themes. I like to put things in context. For us to do aquaponics without looking at it in a local, or regional, or global setting is kind of a wasted exercise,” Savage said.
The class gets tools from various avenues. Heirloom seed companies donate seeds, and the class often sells herbs they grow at fundraisers. The money raised goes to buy additional lab equipment. Still, over the last few years, Savage and his students have built four aquaponics systems — a fifth system is under construction.
“The kids plant, watch the germination process, and transfer the seeds, the seedlings into the aquaponics, and maintain the system through water chemistry, taking care of the fish, and up to the point where they get the harvest,” Savage said.
The students have grown lettuce, kale, hot and bell peppers, tomatoes, basil, tarragon, and mint. Savage’s students haven’t grown a substantial amount of food (they plan to expand the program in 2013), but produce that’s grown is donated to local organizations that provide meals to people without access to fresh produce.
The class, so far, is a success. And while the students in Savage’s environmental science elective aren’t hardcore science fanatics, he’s noticed that a few teens have become immersed in the subject matter.
“I’ve had two or three kids build some little systems with 10 or 20-gallon aquariums in their bedrooms. They are using goldfish as their fish-waste supply and are growing tomatoes and peppers in their bedrooms,” Savage said.
“I genuinely feel like every day I have a chance to reach one kid. I’ll never know who it is, or what I’ve said, or what I’ve did, but when a student comes back, or a parent comes back and says, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing with my kid, but they talk about your class at dinner; they’ve got this aquarium and plants growing in their bedroom.’ That’s the really fun part for me.”
While Savage’s classroom aquaponics system is small to medium-sized, the class is working with Gabriel’s Place, a ministry located in a food desert in Cincinnati, on a larger project. The ministry and class are working to provide a low-cost, secure garden for the community.
“They have an aquaponics system up and running. They [also have a place they want to] fill with perch, or blue gill or tilapia, so, the residents can come and grow produce and [eventually] buy fish as well,” Savage said.
“All the grocery chains have moved out of the community. There is nothing within two or three miles in any direction. These are people who are without transport other than the city metro bus to go to get fresh produce.”
Savage thinks his kids learn a lot at the ministry because most of his students come from upper-income families in the suburbs.
“It’s something that is a real eye-opener for 17, or 18 year olds. There are a lot of people — the closest to a fresh vegetable they get is a bag of potato chips,” Savage said.
Although most of Savage’s work resides in Cincinnati, he’s considering working on a new project with a ministry in Dayton, OH. He and the ministry want to set up a small-scale aquaponics project at an orphanage outside Tijuana, Mexico.
If Savage thinks the project is viable (he recently traveled to Mexico to examine the site), he hopes to help set up the garden and aquaponics system soon. The system would help offset food costs at the orphanage, and teach the orphans important sustainable agriculture skills as well.