The healthy-looking tomatoes and parsley grow in a rectangular tub, a shallow vessel full of clay pellets floating in water in a fenced-in area at Westside Elementary School. Pipes attach the vegetables and herbs to their fertilizer source, the watery waste of fish swimming around in a large tub.
Science lab teacher Linda Rothenberg has koi, Hypostomus plecostomus (algae eaters) and tilapia in the tank that feeds her aquaponic garden. The tilapia are new this year to an ecosystem she and her students have been running for the past few years.
Rothenberg uses the aquaponic garden to give her students farming experience and teach them the hydrogen cycle. Up to this year, the children have been using the fish simply to fertilize the plants. The addition of tilapia adds another food source to the farming lessons.
Students will soon be putting in romaine lettuce, which is still in the classroom as seedlings. There are small, young tilapia in the classroom, too. They will be added to the tank when they are older and no longer in danger of being eaten by the bigger fish.
Westside acquired the watery garden through a grant written for $2,065 several years ago, before Rothenberg took it over. She recently won another grant to expand her program. She will receive $1,633 to study hydroponics and water conservation and hopes to put in two more gardens, traditional and hydroponic. The students will compare the amounts of water used in the two.
Rothenberg has a useful partnership with A1 Pets, owned by her husband, Tom Rothenberg. He provides the koi for the fish tank and their food. Rothenberg and her students grow the koi, which are then returned to the store to be sold.
He has also provided some of the critters that inhabit Rothenberg's classroom. She has two Australian bearded dragons, fence lizards, a ball python and a green emerald basilisk. She is working on setting up a replication of the Weeki Wachee River.
In the meantime, her kindergarten through fifth-grade students will continue to check the pH levels in their fish tank and feed the residents within.