How will we feed 10 billion people by 2050? Solutions to big problems often start small. An ambitious group of researchers in Seattle have rallied teachers and students across the country to help search for a new approach to sustainable urban agriculture.
Writer: Maria Dolan
Project Editor and Photographer: Hsiao-Ching Chou
Seattle, April 20, 2017
Daelyn Bergsman is bouncing out of his black Vans to show off his group’s science project to visitors. In the far corner of his high school’s lofty greenhouse, there is a riot of tomato, chard and green bean plants on a workbench that’s connected by snaking hoses and pipes to a 70-gallon tub containing tea-colored water and six tilapia. The plants grow in coconut husks, not soil. The tannins from the coconut husks tint the water that cycles between the fish tank and the planters. It's a happy, symbiotic system that may hold a key to the future of sustainable urban agriculture — especially if the researchers at Institute for Systems Biology (ISB) have anything to do with it.
“This is our aquaponics project,” Bergsman proudly announces. The 17 year old is a senior at Glacier Peak High School in Snohomish, Washington, located about 30 miles north of Seattle. He’s a member of the STEM Club, which is exploring what it would take to scale-up the produce yield to supply a local food bank. “The tomato plants quickly outgrew everything and overtook the system. Their roots have been quite problematic.”
In fact, the roots have an affinity for clogging the water pump. After unexpected snow closed the school for two days, the students returned to the greenhouse to find that a tomato plant had choked a pump with a tangle roots, leaving fish gasping in a tank under a spare few inches of water. There were puddles spread across the floor. It was a setback, indeed, but it also was a valuable lesson.
“They’re learning differently because they’re actually doing,” explains Glacier Peak High School teacher Tami Caraballo, who introduced aquaponics in her advanced molecular biology for global health class. She is using curriculum from Project Feed 1010 (PF1010), which is a multi-faceted program that ISB launched in 2015 to focus on creating a paradigm shift in how people produce and consume food. PF1010 (the “1010” stands for ten to the tenth, or 10 billion — the anticipated human population in 2050) includes a series of three curriculum modules that incorporate aquaponics and are being field-tested by high school science teachers like Caraballo.
“We’re finding that the earlier we can intervene in students’ lives and give them hands-on, interdisciplinary science experiences where they have to focus on problem solving and addressing real-world issues, the more likely they are to be engaged in becoming life-long problem solvers,” says Jessica Day, PF1010 project manager.
Bergsman’s excitement matches the prolific plants he and his STEM Club cohorts are tending. Nearly a hundred plants can squeeze into a space the size of three cafeteria trays. In this system, in spite of the density, the plants thrive, bearing green beans, young squash, edible flowers, and tiny green tomatoes. For Caraballo, this kind of hands-on project generates an enthusiasm most textbooks can’t.
“Aquaponics is totally related to next-generation science standards; it’s the engineering, the problem solving, and the modeling,” Caraballo says.
Aquaponics is a sustainable agriculture method that combines aquaculture (fish farming) with hydroponics (growing plants in water). The method uses up to 90 percent less water than traditional agriculture, and speeds up plant growth compared to traditional agriculture. Plants grow without soil as bacteria break down fish waste into the nitrogen that plants use for fuel. Crops thrive, even when closely planted, because they have constant access to water and nutrients. Aquaponics is part of the fast-growing trend of agriculture technology, which includes hydroponics, vertical farming, warehouse farming, and other forms of container farming. It may also be one solution for the problem of how to feed humans in a world that is getting more populated and overtaxed with every passing year.
Caraballo applies this very real issue in her global health class by challenging her students to “feed or fuel the world.”
“We talk about United Nations sustainability goals, which include food security and safe drinking water,” she says.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, an estimated one in nine people, or about 795 million individuals in the world, were suffering from chronic undernourishment in 2014–2016. In addition to the increasing population, the future will bring more extreme climate events, overtaxed freshwater resources, and a dearth of arable land for conventional farming.
“Food security is probably one of the biggest existential problems we face,” says Dr. Nitin Baliga, Senior Vice President and Director at ISB. Dr. Baliga also oversees PF1010. “Food security and climate change,” because climate change is associated with extreme weather events, including prolonged droughts, that can wipe out conventionally-grown crops.
‘Food security is probably one of the biggest existential problems we face.’
Stakes are also high for today’s students. About 47 percent of mid-level jobs that require a two-year or associate’s degree worldwide are at risk of being lost by 2030 to automation and advances in technology. This number includes administrative and manufacturing jobs. In only five years, 7 out of 10 of the jobs that are most in demand will require a STEM degree or certificate.
“This is pretty incredible; it is a huge shift from what we’ve experienced in the last two decades,” says Day. Employers, including ISB, will struggle if they can’t locate enough college graduates with strong STEM backgrounds to fill positions.
“There’s a huge need to address student readiness for careers and college,” Day adds. For evidence, she points to numbers from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCast), which estimate that there will be 1 million fewer STEM graduates in the next decade than U.S. industries will need in the workforce.
The PF1010 curriculum modules are designed not only to present ideas like aquaponics to students, but to do so in a way that develops a “positive STEM identity” in students who might think being a scientist is beyond their abilities.
“Maybe they see other people like themselves who have been successful in STEM careers,” says Day. “They start to realize: ‘Hey, they are like me, and maybe I can do this too.’ It’s more than simply increasing access to resources.”
Around the greenhouse, the evidence is everywhere that real-world issues can hook a kid’s interest in science. Gabby Alonso, a senior in Caraballo’s global health class, learned about food security issues and aquaponics through PF1010's Ambassadors Program the previous summer. Alonso’s group tackled a different aspect of the aquaponics system: growing different forms of algae in a tank as potential fish food. rather than relying on commercial fish feed.
“The goal was to close the loop with aquaponics, because (the fish feed is) not sustainable,” she said. “What’s actually in fish food is other fish—it’s crazy! It’s depleting the environment.”
Alonso feels a personal connection with the subject of food insecurity. When she was eight years old, her mother’s cancer, and a lack of health insurance, wiped out the family finances. Among other hardships, her family was forced to rely on the food bank to keep the cupboards stocked.
“I’d like to be able to use what I know and what I’ve learned about other people to help (society),” says Alonso. Taking action on the problem of feeding the world made science seem like a worthwhile endeavor.
Classroom experiences like the ones at Glacier Peak High School, modest as they are, could be the seeds of a new era for sustainable agriculture, and, perhaps, for science education. As students develop enthusiasm for applying science to the world’s most complex problems—like food security—they move closer to being the problem-solvers for an uncertain future.
Hands-on science also gives students powerful critical thinking tools. “Training students to run tests and hypotheses themselves makes it hard to fool them,” he says. “They now have the tools to separate fact from fiction.”
Project Feed 1010 Takes Root
Through his lab at ISB, Dr. Baliga established Systems-Education Experiences (SEE) in 2003 as a way to translate current scientific concepts and practices for high school classrooms. SEE’s director, Claudia Ludwig, leads the development of curriculum modules, which have been downloaded and implemented in high school classrooms worldwide. There are six modules and a seventh in development that cover topics ranging from basic systems to ecological networks to ocean acidification. Aquaponics falls under the “modeling sustainable food systems” module.
“In aquaponics you really have the whole life cycle,” Ludwig says. “You have animals, plants, bacteria, water, gases, solids.”
Aquaponics also intersects with fundamental research in the Baliga Lab related to the effects of climate change on microbial communities, and how nutrients are cycled in the soil.
“We look at sulfur, nitrogen, carbon and so on, and how human activities can perturb that cycle,” says Dr. Baliga. “We can share a lot of that learning through activities like the ones in Project Feed 1010.”
Adds Ludwig: “Our scientists at ISB were already asking, what is a sustainable system? What is a robust system? How do you alter a system to make it more robust? How do you model a system so that you can make predictions?” Aquaponics projects inspire students to ask those same questions.
Dr. Baliga and his team wanted to experiment with crowdfunding and crowdsourcing, instead of relying on the standard practice in nonprofit research of applying for government grants. PF1010 officially launched in 2015 with a crowdfunding campaign.
Teachers in more than a dozen states are now using the PF1010 curriculum. As a result, hundreds of students across the country have become citizen scientists. They are collecting aquaponics data to upload to a web application that ISB researchers co-developed with partners at Northeastern University.
Among the early adopters are students at Palm Beach Gardens High School in Florida. Science teacher Kathy Roberts and her kids set up an aquaponics system, with long-distance support from Day, as well as help from the PF1010 online community.
Roberts’ students used the project to compete in a Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) Global Challenge. They collaborated with students in Panama who also were studying aquaponics.
“The students really took the reins and said, ‘let’s do this,’ ” says Roberts. Their tomato plants grew almost to the ceiling. The project took first place in the FBLA Global Challenge and the team received the $4000 prize, which was used for program funding.
“The project really showed them how they could have ownership of something and really innovate,” says Roberts.
I n order for any project to gain traction, it needs a champion who’s willing to turn over every stone to find new worlds of opportunity. Day was a high school AP science teacher and had participated in SEE’s teacher intern program at Institute for Systems Biology in the summer of 2014. After her internship, she immediately implemented the systems biology- and project-based teaching she had learned. The impact on her juniors and seniors was immediate.
“(The students) started liking science,” Day recalls. “They weren’t just doing it to memorize it and pass a test. They were actually excited to be in my room and do experiments.” Before she introduced aquaponics in her class, the students had no idea how food gets from the farm to the table.
“They never realized how many resources it takes to grow lettuce,” says Day, who suddenly was in the position of influencing the future of the food industry simply by teaching her students about (sustainable) agriculture and how to value food. “That was pretty powerful for me.”
She then decided to make it her mission to “figure out how to get students across the country and across the world to get excited about systems biology.” In 2015, she uprooted her life — and her husband’s — to move from Amarillo, Texas, to Seattle to work for ISB.
The logistics of launching and maintaining all the aspects of PF1010 — aquaponics experiments, curriculum development, app development, community engagement, funding, marketing — has, at times, resembled the seemingly disparate demands one might find at a startup. Despite having roots in academia, ISB encourages staff to think entrepreneurially. That attitude permeates ISB’s culture and, therefore, all of the research projects as well as the robust science education and outreach efforts.
One of the initial challenges was finding a suitable location for an aquaponics system. ISB’s labs were not designed to accommodate a greenhouse or support fish tanks. The compromise was to clear out a corner in a secure storage area in ISB’s underground parking garage. Day and her colleague, Dr. Jake Valenzuela, a post-doctoral researcher, designed and built a small green house and aquaponics system, using only supplies that any teacher or student would be able to purchase at a hardware store or online.
When Day gives tours of the greenhouse, visitors are, at first, befuddled by having to descend into the depths of the building. But, what was once a point of contention, is now a proof of concept.
“See, you can grow food almost anywhere,” Day says. On this day, she has a basil plant that looks a little sunburned, and some hearty leaves of kale and other greenery growing on rafts above the fish tanks, which house tilapia.
“Science doesn’t always ‘succeed’ or ‘fail,’ ” she explains, prodding at the basil. “We learn more from each experiment.”
In 2016, PF1010 began the Ambassadors Program for high school juniors. Day trains students how to set up aquaponics systems, and how to build community engagement around the topics of food security and sustainable agriculture. The training empowers the ambassadors to then share their knowledge at their respective schools or in their communities. Day also had the opportunity, through the Microsoft Giving Campaign, to work with Microsoft employees who are willing to volunteer as ambassadors.
A next step in PF1010 is a citizen science program aimed at figuring out how to collect data on individual experiments on aquaponics systems through crowdsourcing. To that end, ISB recently issued tabletop aquaponics systems (a three-gallon fish tank, accessories, and a coupon for a betta fish at the local pet store) to ISB staff willing to run experiments with bacteria — first using the bacteria provided in the kit, then looking for better bacteria from a nearby water source, such as a pond or lake.
“If that project is scaled up, it could offer a series of challenges that can be optimized through crowdsourcing.” says Dr. Baliga, who is participating in the project with his elementary school-aged daughters.
Learning to solve the world’s problems
Even though Institute for Systems Biology is a scientific research organization, one of its core values is the belief that knowledge must be shared, and in a way that is equitable and accessible. There are several teams that work specifically in education at ISB in order to help bridge what happens in the labs with K-12 and undergraduate classrooms. The hope is always to inspire teachers and students.
And it works.
During a visit to Microsoft as part of her PF1010 internship in 2016, Alonso was excited to see that the company was using hydroponics to grow food to supply its cafeterias. She buttonholed a leader and said to her: “I think this is really cool and I really want to be a part of this.” Alonso’s pluckiness led to a part-time paid position at Microsoft to help check data and water chemistry in the hydroponics systems, help set up aquaponics systems, and assist employees who want to try maintaining a small aquaponics systems at home.
Caraballo could not be prouder of her student.
“Anybody can do science, and that’s what I’m trying to sell,” says Caraballo. “You don’t have to be brilliant. We’re persistent. We’re willing to try. And it should be fun. (We) should be curious (and ask), ‘I’m wondering if’ or ‘I’m wondering why.’ I can work with that.”
If teachers like Caraballo continue to get kids interested in this kind of problem-solving, the future looks bright — and green.
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