Growing own food helps children make healthier choices
By SARA GIBONEY
KEARNEY – Two University of Nebraska at Kearney professors and their collaborators are embarking on a research project that could change the way kids think about food.
Nate Bickford, assistant professor of biology, and Matt Bice, assistant professor in the Physical Activity and Wellness Laboratory, are teaming up to teach middle school teachers how to integrate aquaponics systems into their classrooms and curriculum.
“One of the problems with Nebraska is there are so many food deserts,” Bickford said. “We need to relearn 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.”
“If you plant your own food and you see it grow, you learn where food comes from.”
A food desert is an area where nutritious food is difficult to find due to availability, distance, affordability or limited places to shop.
Bice and Bickford hypothesize that growing their own food will teach children how to make healthier choices.
Aquaponics is a modern agricultural practice that marries aquaculture – which is the farming of fish and other aquatic organisms – and hydroponics, which is growing plants without soil.
“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.”
Twenty-four teachers representing 18-22 different rural schools across Nebraska will be involved in the project. Teachers have the option of using a 30-gallon tank in the classroom or a 250-gallon tank for the school. Teachers 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,” said Bickford.
Students could learn about science through nutrient dynamics, behavioral studies on fish, chemistry of water, water balance and more.
Bice said integrating aquaponics into the curriculum will allow students to acquire skills through hands-on learning.
“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,” he said.
Bice and Bickford will measure the impact the new curriculum has on the nutritional choices of kids.
“There are a lot of school health and nutrition programs out there,” said Bice. “This is a very innovative and captivating way to introduce nutrition inside of a classroom.
“There’s also the added benefit of just having live plants in your presence. It increases your quality of life, it increases your mindfulness about life and more. That whole aspect will have a profound influence on students.”
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.
Bice and Bickford are part of a team of UNK faculty working on various research projects involving aquaponics. Along with Bice and Bickford, the Leap Team consists of Angela Hollman, assistant professor of industrial technology; Sonja Bickford, assistant professor of industrial technology; Dustin Ranglack, assistant professor of biology; and Dick Meyer, associate professor and chair of educational administration.
Writer: Sara Giboney, 308.865.8529, firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: Matt Bice, 308.865.8052, email@example.com
Source: Nate Bickford, 308.865.8410, firstname.lastname@example.org