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22.8 Does Aquaponics Fulfill Its Promise in Teaching? Evaluation of Students' Responses to Aquaponics

4 months ago

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22.8.1 EU FP6 Project "WasteWaterResource"

The aim of the Waste Water Resource project was to assemble, develop, and assess teaching and demonstration material on ecotechnological research and methods for pupils aged between 10 and 13 years (http://www.scientix.eu/web/guest/projects/ project-detail?articleId=95738). The teaching units were assessed in order to improve the methods and content and maximize learning outcomes. Based on discussions with educational professionals, the assessment was based on a simple approach using questionnaires and semi-structured interviews. Teachers assessed the units by answering the online questionnaire (see Sect. 22.7.1). The aquaponic units were evaluated in Sweden (in the Technichus Science Center, and in Älandsbro skola in Härnösand), and in Switzerland.

22.8.1.1 Technichus Science Center, Sweden

Between 2006 and 2008, an aquaponic unit was installed at Technichus, a science center in Härnösand, Sweden (www.technichus.se). The questionnaire was placed beside the system so that the visiting students could answer the questions at any time. It consisted of 8 questions (Fig. 22.8).

The answers showed that the students understood how the water in the system was re-circulated. They understood less well how nutrients were transported within the system and the contents of the nutrients and, interestingly, one in four students did not know that the plants growing in the aquaponic unit were edible.

22.8.1.2 Älandsbro skola, Sweden

The questionnaire used in Älandsbro skola was first explained by the teacher in order to ensure that the students would understand the questions. The questions were answered before the project started and at the end of the project.

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Fig. 22.8 Questionnaire and the frequency of answers of the 24 students (aged from 8 to 17 years) visiting the exhibition in Technichus, Sweden

On average, there were 28% more correct answers to the general questions about nutrient requirements of plants and fishes after the teaching unit. As expected, and similar to the findings of Bamert and Albin (2005), the increase in knowledge was evident.

The conclusions of the investigation were that (i) working with aquaponics has a great potential to help pupils attain relevant learning goals in the Swedish curriculum for biology and natural sciences; (ii) the teachers thought that the work gave natural opportunities to talk about cycling of matter and that it attracted the pupils' interest; (iii) the questionnaires showed that a large number of pupils had changed their opinion about the needs of fish and plants before and after they worked with the system; and (iv) the interviews with the older pupils showed that they had acquired good knowledge about the system.

Even more important, all the people involved (teachers and students) found that aquaponics provided the means to expand the horizon of the discipline, in a refreshing and effective way.

22.8.1.3 Comparison of the Success of Aquaponics in Classes from Urban and Rural Environments in Switzerland

Bamert (2007) compared the effects of teaching with classroom aquaponics to students aged 11—13 years in two different environments in Switzerland. The School in Donat, Grisons Canton, is situated in the rural alpine region, where the students mostly live on nearby farms. Many of these farms are organic, so these students knew certain concepts about cycles in nature from their everyday life. There were 16 students, aged 11—13 years, in the joint class of fifth and sixth grade. Their mother tongue is Rhaeto-Romanic, but the aquaponics classes were given in German.

The School in Waedenswil, on the other hand, is situated in the greater Zürich area. The students mostly grew up in an urban environment and had less experience of nature compared with the students from Donat. Because the students from Donat stated that the theoretical part was rather difficult, nitrification was not explained in Waedenswil (Example 22.2). Also, one must consider that the teaching unit was spread over 11 weeks in Donat, while it was performed as a 2-day workshop in Wädenswil.

Answers to questions about what they liked/disliked most about the aquaponics lessons are presented in Fig. 22.9. While the rural students were most fascinated by the system itself, the urban students were mostly fascinated by the fish. Generally, fish were the biggest motivator in both classes. Netting the fish, transporting, feeding, and just observing them were all very popular activities. The thirst for knowledge about fish mainly involved questions about reproduction, growth, etc.

22.8.1.4 Promoting Systems Thinking with Aquaponics in Switzerland

The effect of the teaching sequence described in Example 22.3 on systems thinking competencies was assessed at the beginning and at the end of the sequence. The

Fig. 22.9 Answers of students from two different environments (Donat-rural and Waedenswilurban) about what they liked/disliked most in the aquaponic lessons

ability of students to think in a systemic way instead of linear succession improved significantly in the post-test compared to the pre-test.

Systems thinking is one of the key competencies in the complex world (Nagel and Wilhelm-Hamiti 2008), and is necessary in order to gain an overview of the underlying systems of the real world, because most problems are complex and require a systemic approach to develop a viable solution.

Systems thinking includes four central dimensions (Ossimitz 1996; Ossimitz 2000): (i) thinking in models; (ii) interconnected thinking; (iii) dynamic thinking (thinking about dynamic processes, such as delays, feedback loops, oscillations); and (iv) manipulation of systems, which implies the ability for practical system management and system control. Classroom aquaponics mostly concern interconnected thinking and thinking in models. Interconnected thinking involves identification and appraisal of direct and indirect effects, particularly with regard to identifying feedback loops, construction, and the understanding of networks and of cause and effect.

The main goal of the teaching sequence "Classroom aquaponics" described in Example 22.3 was to enable students to adopt tools, which can help them to examine complex problems. The hypothesis tested was that incorporating aquaponics into teaching units would have a positive influence on the systems thinking abilities of the pupils.

All the 68 students performed a test at the beginning and at the end of the teaching sequence. The pre- and post-test were identical and contained a short text about life as a farmer, which animated the students to think about farmers and their behavior. It ended with the question: "Why did the farmer put manure on his fields?" The pupils answered with a drawing and/or a description of the reasons. The answers of the students were evaluated according to the method outlined by BollmannZuberbuehler et al. (2010), which allows a qualitative method to be used with quantitative results (for more details on this, see also Junge et al. 2014).

Generally, the delineation of systems shifted from a qualitative description to a more schematic description and became more complex in the post-test. When numerical scores were assigned to each level of drawing (Table 22.6), an interesting

Table 22.6 Identification of the delineation of the system representations

table thead tr class="header" thDelineation/th th Description /th th Score /th /tr /thead tbody tr class="odd" tdNo drawing/td td No representation at all /td td 1 /td /tr tr class="even" tdSchematic representation/td td Schemes without logical connection /td td 2 /td /tr tr class="odd" tdFigure with stages/td td Logical sequence with a minimum of 3 stages /td td 3 /td /tr tr class="even" tdOther representation types/td td All other representations, which could not be clearly allocated /td td 4 /td /tr tr class="odd" tdLinear Graph/td td Contains at least 1 chain of events /td td 5 /td /tr tr class="even" tdEffect diagram/td td Contains in addition at least 1 junction /td td 6 /td /tr tr class="odd" tdNetwork diagram/td td Contains in addition at least 1 feedback loop and/or cycle /td td 7 /td /tr /tbody /table

Table 22.7 Comparison of the median delineation scores between the pre- and post-test

table thead tr class="header" th/th th Pre-activity test (./median) /th th Post-activity test (./median) /th th Change /th /tr /thead tbody tr class="odd" tdGirls/td td 2.5 /td td 7 /td td 4.5 /td /tr tr class="even" tdBoys/td td 2 /td td 7 /td td 5 /td /tr /tbody /table

pattern emerged (Table 22.7). While both genders reached the median level of 7, meaning that the majority of drawings contained at least one loop and/or cycle, at the end of the teaching sequence, the change was more marked among the boys, who started at a lower level. This indicated that boys profited more from hands-on experience than girls.

In the next step, the Complexity index, Interconnection index, and the Structure index were calculated (for details, see Junge et al. 2014).

The complexity index (German: Komplexitätsindex, KI) shows how many system concepts the student implemented:

$ \text{KI} = \text{variables} + \text{arrows} + \text{chain of events} + \text{junction} + \text{feedback loops} $ (22.1)

The interconnection index (Vernetzungsindex, VI) shows the frequency of the connections between the variables:

$VI = 2 \times \text{arrows}/ \text{variables}$ (22.2)

The structure index (Strukturindex, SI) shows how many complex system concepts the student implemented in the representation:

$\text{SI} = (\text{chains of events} + \text{junctions} + \text{feedback loops})/\text{variables}$ (22.3)

The students found more system concepts and knew more about system variables at the post-test than in the pre-test, a fact reflected by all indices applied (Fig. 22.10).

These results appear to support the hypothesis that incorporating aquaponics into teaching has a positive influence on the systems thinking capabilities of students, and that the devised "Classroom Aquaponic Sequence" was successful in training students in systems thinking.

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Fig. 22.10 Complexity of answers in pre-activity and post-activity tests. Above: Complexity Index (KI), centre: Interconnection Index (VI), below: Structure Index (SI)

22.8.2 Evaluation of the Aquaponics Teaching Unit in Vocational Education in Slovenia

22.8.2.1 Evaluation of the Aquaponics Course, Biotechnical Centre Naklo, Slovenia

The learning progression of the short aquaponic course within the study of Peroci (2016) (see Precedent 5) was assessed by means of questionnaires: (i) pre-test/posttest; (ii) test of the acquired skill level in connection with food production in aquaponics; and (iii) teaching evaluation.

The influence of various factors on the popularity of the lessons and the practical work was evaluated. Students named several factors as being crucial for their interest in the aquaponics course. The most relevant factors were: more relaxed teachers (80%); entertainment (76%); attractive location of the practical work (72%); contact with nature (68%); active practical work (64%); and use of interesting new methods (56%). Generally, students rated the more interesting lessons as those that were less difficult (e.g., the lesson "Monitoring water quality and bacteria" was less interesting and most difficult) (Fig. 22.11).

22.8.2.2 Survey of Knowledge and Attitudes Toward Aquaponics

Peroci (2016) investigated knowledge, attitudes toward food produced, and interest in the use of aquaponics among students at 8 secondary vocational schools in biotechnical fields within the educational programs for land manager (1st—third year), horticultural technician (1st—fourth year), technician in agriculture and management (1st—fourth year), and environmental technician (1st—fourth year) during 2015 and 2016.

The survey involved a 15-minute questionnaire, with closed-ended answers (yes or no). The survey showed that 42.9% of 1049 students had already heard about aquaponics. They had learnt about it at school (379 students), from the media (79), from peers and acquaintances (42), from advertisements (18), when visiting the aquaponics (12), at agricultural fairs (2), and in aquaristic (1). Most of the positive answers were from students from the Biotechnical Center Naklo where the aquaponics was constructed in 2012 (Podgrajšek et al. 2014) and aquaponics was already integrated in the learning process; 28% of respondents lacked any knowledge about aquaponics and 19.8% of respondents said they would choose the aquaponics course over other modules, mostly because of its interdisciplinary nature and due to its sustainable and creative approach. The students also expected that after attending such a course, they would have better chances of finding a job. Most students liked the practical work, and 10.7% of respondents said they would like to volunteer by maintaining the aquaponics and that they would like to set up their own aquaponics. The analysis regarding the interest of students in producing food using aquaponics showed that they liked this idea. However, they were not sure if they would eat the fish and vegetables produced in this way, mostly because they had no previous experience of eating food produced in an aquaponics. Based on these results, we can assume that the production of food in aquaponics will be well accepted by the students of secondary vocational schools in biotechnical fields. This is important as these students are the next generation of entrepreneurs, farmers, and technicians who will not only generate, make, and evolve aquaponics in the future but also help generate the confidence in aquaponics among stakeholders so that it becomes part of food production in Slovenia in the future.

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Fig. 22.11 Evaluation of the perceived interest (above) and difficulty (below) of aquaponics lessons at the vocational school in Naklo, Slovenia. (Modified after Peroci 2016)