Aquaponics latest addition to MISD Outdoor Science Center

By HANK MURPHY An outdoor science lab behind Mineola Middle School continues to incorporate new elements as educators seek to bring a hands-on learning experience to students. The latest addition to the MISD Outdoor Science Center is an aquaponics system that demonstrates a relationship among plants, fish and earth’s water cycle. “One of the things we teach in seventh grade is if we lived on another planet, how would we sustain life? So this is perfect for that,” explained seventh-grade science teacher Susan Witt. Witt and her husband, Todd, built a handicapped-accessible aquaponics station designed to grow nutrient-rich vegetables and protein-rich fish. The plants grow amid marbles of rock hard clay immersed in water. Nearby is a fish tank stocked with perch. Water is exchanged between the two stations, giving the fish plenty of fresh water while supplying a garden of tomatoes, peppers, okra, cucumbers, basil and eggplants fertilizer from the fish’s waste material. After nitrates are absorbed by the plants, clean water is returned to the tank. MISD Supt. Kim Tunnell observed that the aquaponics system has real-world applications. “In a lot of third-world countries, a similar system helps them grow tilapia,” she said. “They can grow both protein and vegetables.” Building the latest addition to the Outdoor Science Center was no easy feat. The large wooden deck and accompanying structures required fastening by hundreds if not thousands of screws. Witt, however, described the project as a labor of love. “This is fun for us, we love to build and create,” she said. She noted that the Outdoor Science Center is the product of community involvement, with monetary and technical support from multiple sources. Already, the Outdoor Science Center has a greenhouse, and other planned elements include raised planting beds, a chicken coop, container gardening, and a system to capture and impound rainwater. The center will demonstrate to children natural processes such as soil erosion, desertification, and the development of wetlands. Witt also eyes a demonstration plot for a native East Texas mini eco-system. She and her students may even attempt to grow cotton. Students also will learn other scientific concepts at the Outdoor Science Center, including genetics and learned animal behavior. “This becomes an outdoor classroom,” noted Tunnell.