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Aquaponics is not only a forward-looking food production technology; it also promotes scientific literacy and provides a very good tool for teaching the natural sciences (life and physical sciences) at all levels of education, from primary school (Hofstetter 2007, 2008; Bamert and Albin 2005; Bollmann-Zuberbuehler et al. 2010; Junge et al. 2014) to vocational education (Baumann 2014; Peroci 2016) and at university level (Graber et al. 2014).
An aquaponic classroom model system provides multiple ways of enriching classes in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). The "hands-on" approach also enables experiential learning, which is the process of learning through physical experience, and more precisely the "meaning-making" process of an individual's direct experience (Kolb 1984). Aquaponics can thus become an enjoyable and effective way for learners to study STEM content. It can also be used for teaching subjects such as business and economics, addressing issues such as sustainable development, environmental science, agriculture, food systems, and health (Hart et al. 2013).
A basic aquaponics can be built easily and inexpensively. The World Wide Web is a repository of many examples of videos and instructions on how to build aquaponics from a variety of components, resulting in a range of different sizes and set-ups. Recent investigations of one such prototype micro-aquaponics showed that despite being small, it can mimic a full-scale unit and it is an effective teaching tool with a relatively low environmental impact (Maucieri et al. 2018). However, implementing aquaponics in classrooms is not without its challenges. Hart et al. (2013) report that technical difficulties, lack of experience and knowledge, and maintenance over holiday periods can all pose significant barriers to teachers using aquaponics in education, and that disinterest on the teacher's part may also be a crucial factor (Graham et al. 2005; Hart et al. 2014). Clayborn et al. (2017), on the other hand, showed that many educators are willing to incorporate aquaponics in the classroom, particularly when an additional incentive, such as hands-on experience, is provided.
Wardlow et al. (2002) investigated teachers' perceptions of the aquaponic unit as a classroom system and also illustrated a prototype unit that can easily be constructed. All teachers strongly agreed that bringing an aquaponics unit into the classroom is inspiring for the students and led to greater interaction between students and teachers, thereby contributing to a dialogue about science. On the other hand, it is unclear exactly how the teachers and students made use of the aquaponics and the instructional materials offered. Hence, the information needed to evaluate the impact of aquaponics classes on meeting the objectives of the students' curricula is still missing. In a survey on the use of aquaponics in education in the USA (Genello et al.
2015), respondents indicated that aquaponics were often used to teach subjects, which are more exclusively focused on STEM topics. Aquaponics education in primary and secondary schools is science-focused, project-oriented, and geared primarily toward older students, while college and university aquaponics were generally larger and less integrated into the curriculum. Interdisciplinary subjects such as food systems and environmental science were taught using an aquaponics more frequently at colleges and universities than they were at schools, where the focus was more often on single discipline subjects such as chemistry or biology. Interestingly, only a few vocational and technical schools used aquaponics to teach subjects other than aquaponics. This indicates that for these educators, aquaponics is a stand-alone subject and not a vehicle to address STEM or food system topics (Genello et al. 2015).
While the studies mentioned above reported aquaponics as having the potential to encourage the use of experimentation and hands-on learning, they did not evaluate the impact of aquaponics on learning outcomes. Junge et al. (2014) evaluated aquaponics as a tool to promote systems thinking in the classroom. The authors reported that 13—14 year old students (seventh grade in Switzerland) displayed a statistically significant increase from pre- to post-test for all the indices measured to assess their systems thinking capacities. However, since the pupils did not have any prior knowledge of systems thinking, and since there was no control group, the authors concluded that supplementary tests are needed to evaluate whether aquaponics has additional benefits compared to other teaching tools. This issue was addressed in the study by Schneller et al. (2015) who found significant advances in environmental knowledge scores in 10—11 year old students compared to a control group of 17 year olds. Moreover, when asked for their teaching preferences, the majority of students indicated that they preferred hands-on experiential pedagogy such as aquaponics or hydroponics. The majority of the students also discussed the curriculum with their families, explaining how hydroponic and aquaponics work. This observation extends the belief that hands-on learning using aquaponics (and hydroponics) not only has a stimulating impact on teachers and students, but also leads to intergenerational learning.
The objective of this chapter is to provide an overview of possible strategies for implementing aquaponics in curricula at different levels of education, illustrated by case studies from different countries. Based on evaluations conducted with some of these case studies, we attempt to answer the question of whether aquaponics fulfils its promise as an educational tool.