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23.2 Conceptual Foundation

5 months ago

7 min read

Supporting Sustainable Development (SD) of the food system through educational efforts can be expected to be a good investment, as school children are the future policy makers and producers.

According to Shephard (2008), educators and particularly higher educators have traditionally focused on the cognitive domain of learning with no much emphasis being put on primary education. We hold the view that using appropriate learning tools at primary school level can be an essential pillar to bringing about long-term positive change in societies. These can be realized though alternative learning and teaching approaches, different from traditional deductive approaches such as "learning by doing" and "experiential learning" pioneered by Dewey (1997) in his work experience and education. In our research work, we present a type of extracurricular dimensional perspective, where we add to pupils' learning outcomes by tapping into the affective domain, which focuses on interests, attitudes, appreciations, values, changing behaviors, and emotional sets or biases (Shephard et al. 2015). Practical aquaponics promises to deliver a hands-on problem-based inductive learning tool for education.

Study cases all build on the idea of Service Learning (SL), where students use academic knowledge to address community needs, and the knowledge triangle (education, research, and innovation), which are part of the teaching at the Integrated Food Studies (IFS) program at Aalborg University (Mikkelsen and Justesen 2015). The IFS also uses Problem-Based Learning (PBL), where learning is approached with open-ended problems with no absolute right answer, as well SL approaches. SL is a pedagogical approach that is rooted in PBL as well as in the experiential learning approach (McKay-Nesbitt et al. 2012). Using the SL approach, students are expected to become involved in projects based on the needs, wishes, and demands of local communities. The recent interest in reforming educational practices and strategies makes the use of aquaponics an important component in the educational context timely and relevant. Additionally, the use of inductive methods such as PBL and discipline-based learning (Wood 2003: Armstrong 2008) as well as experiential learning (Beard 2010; McKay-Nesbitt et al. 2012), where everyday life problems and questions are used to inform the learning process, is spreading. These concepts are all favorable for aquaponic teaching. Furthermore, the idea of SL is compatible with the aquaponic teaching concept and the recent Danish School Reform (Danish Ministry of Education 2014) that present guidelines on how to integrate the practical and theoretical aspects of the curriculum.

While there are several aquaponic systems that can be supplied by manufacturers and/or bespoke systems designed by consultants, aquaponic technology in principle is rather simple. The basic principles can thus be well understood by students, and the systems can be designed, built, and monitored by students using a range of materials and methods, ranging from the basic to the sophisticated. Taking this premise, aquaponics is thus a technology that is highly suited to the knowledge triangle approach. Education can be enhanced through the creation of links between the three sides of the knowledge triangle, i.e., education, research, and innovation. Innovative thinking on how education for sustainability could be implemented using practical educational tools leads the educator toward aquaponics: a food production method which is essentially a symbiotic integration of two mature disciplines — recirculating aquaculture and hydroponics in one production system, where the live fish generate nutrients for plant production. A simple aquaponic system unit, such as the one shown in Fig. 23.1, was set up at an elementary school in Copenhagen. The figure illustrates some of the basic components used with a brief detail on its working principle: a simple aquarium where water in the fish tank is kept at a constant height through appropriate design for the comfort of the fish. Through some pumping action from a sump tank situated below the grow bed, excess water containing fish waste is cycled through plant grow beds, where bacteria and other microbes are hosted.

Fig. 23.1 The aquaponic learning and experimental mock-up. The illustration shows the setup including aquarium fish tank and the monitoring devices that are used to measure the equilibrium of the whole system. The last part is the core of the learning goal for students. (Pictures: courtesy of Lija Gunnarsdottir)

The sump and grow bed act together as mechanical and biofilters, respectively, by removing solids and dissolved waste.

The setup in Fig. 23.1 illustrates a practical educational example, focusing on sustainability since it provides a practical example of how the goals set out under Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in UN Agenda 2030 for SD can be addressed (UN 2015b). Goal number 2, which targets ending hunger, achieving food security and improved nutrition, and promoting sustainable agriculture, and goal number 4, which focuses on ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and the promotion of lifelong learning opportunities for all (UN 2015b). These crucial issues can be included in the Problem-Based Learning (PBL) approach that has been developed in the GBG case. Based on a shared firm belief in having technological solutions for the problems of contemporary food systems, the GBG approach contributes to a demonstration of "ecological modernization" in food production processes. Through the development of the didactic for the eGBG themes of sustainability and food literacy, it became clear that for such a system to bring about change, there is a need for the right platform through which knowledge and skills can be exchanged among young people and their teachers in the school setting.

Other studies have shown that the lack of food and nutrition literacy among young people is of growing concern (Vidgen and Gallagos 2014; Dyg and Mikkelsen 2016). This is particularly concerning, as the conventional ways of food production and the current persistent drivers of science and technology have fueled unsustainable global exploitation of earth's resources leading to numerous challenges within the food system (FAO 2010; UNDP 2016). In addition, the increase in world population and the rapid urbanization have overloaded the food system. The United Nations predicts that world population will increase by more than 1 billion people within the next 15 years, reaching 8.5 billion in 2030. Of these, the majority (66%) is forecasted to be living in cities by the year 2050 (UN 2015a). These trends in combination with the growth in unhealthy eating habits and nutrition-related disorders have made a new approach to food nutrition and agriliteracy at school imperative.

The insights from the GBG project and the results from numerous interviews with both teachers and students showed that the successful application of aquaponic technology is dependent on the careful planning and maintenance of the system. The digital version of the GBG — the eGBG — was developed to address these challenges and to use the related opportunities in promoting digital literacy in school. The idea of the eGBG takes inspiration from the idea of self-regulation in biological systems. It is conceptually based on the idea of autopoiesis: referring to a system capable of reproducing and maintaining itself. The term first introduced in 1972 by biologists Maturana and Varela (1980) describes the self-maintaining chemistry of living cells, and ever since then, the concept has been applied in a wide array of fields such as cognition, systems theory, and sociology. In the eGBG study, illustrated by the setup and components in Fig. 23.2, water quality, temperature, dissolved oxygen, CO2, pH, ammonia, and nitrite content are measured with sensors using an electronic and digitalized setup, followed by appropriate automated regulation and adjustments to the required or set levels. This system used alongside a basic maintenance regime better enables children to learn Information and Communications Technology (ICT), together with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects in addition to a wider understanding of sustainable urban farming and animal welfare practices. The eGBG minimizes human error and reduces the amount of critical resources such as the physical labor and hours that would otherwise be required for the care and maintenance of a balanced aquaponic system.

Fig. 23.2 The experimental eGBG setup. The illustration shows the two parts of the system. The aquaponic system itself and the measuring devices and the minicomputer used to follow the biological condition of the eGBG system