Fifth period on Wednesday means there's work to do for the eighth-graders filing into Tracy Weaver's agriculture classroom at Centennial Middle School. Never mind the mouth-watering aroma of baking cinnamon bites wafting in from the adjacent Family and Consumer Science classroom. The 480-gallon tank for the tilapia needs cleaning, there are hundreds of classroom plants to be watered and lettuce seedlings need to be transplanted into trays so they can grow tall and strong enough to feed the apple snails scheduled to arrive the next day. In Weaver's classroom, kids are learning the business of growing food — from hydroponic and soil-based plants, to the farm animals raised by FFA members and shown in fairs, to the newly acquired tilapia that students will raise, harvest and taste this month, when the seven fish are big enough to be fried next door.
Kids love to eat, Weaver said. She has seen that it's one of the big draws for the Family and Consumer Science program next door.
But enrollment for agriculture class has been low these past few years, Weaver said.
Although there are some kids like Wesley Beyer, 13, who says he wants to run his own farm someday, that's not the case so much anymore.
"The kids don't want to get their hands dirty," Weaver said. "They don't want to take care of animals or be outside in the heat sweating, or they think I give them too many notes to take."
Enter the tilapia.
Weaver decided to get her eighth-graders into fish farming after she attended a workshop on aquaculture last year at Harbor Branch Oceanic Institute in Fort Pierce.
"I thought, 'I can do this — this is a piece of cake,' " Weaver said.
She also thought the hands-on aspect would help pull more students into her classroom and give them some insight into a career in the growing fish farming and hydroponics industry.
"The technology has been around for a while, though you don't see it so much in the classroom," Weaver said. "I've heard, though, that some of the 'green jobs' that are supposed to be created with stimulus money will be in this industry."
Weaver got a $2,400 grant from Agriculture in the Classroom Inc. Between that and another $300 teaching grant from the Pasco Education Foundation, she was able to buy equipment to start a classroom fish farm, including a 480-gallon tank and an electric feeder.
At the beginning of the school year, Weaver got 10 tilapia from Morningstar Fisherman, a nonprofit hatchery and training center in Dade City with a mission to fight world hunger. Three of the fish died the first day of school, most likely due to a problem with the filtration system, she said. But those dead fish proved useful, too, when it came to giving lessons in the importance of conducting pH and water-quality tests, identifying fish parts and in training students how to measure the fish.
"Frozen fish are easier for the kids to measure," Weaver said. "They don't flop around."
Tilapia also create a lot of waste. "They're dirty fish," Weaver said.
Much of that fish waste is drained off by students in charge of cleaning the tank three times a week. It is then used to water the classroom plants — African violets, pothos, ferns — and poured into gallon jugs to be sold to others for 25 cents a pop. Water from the tilapia tank also is run through another filter that feeds a classroom hydroponics garden, which, at the moment, is filled with lettuce seedlings.
The smell of the stuff is a little nasty, said Summer Buchanan, 13, who along with Lavante Otero, 15, was in charge of watering the classroom plants last Wednesday.
"But it makes them (the plants) grow faster," Summer said.
"I love this class," she added. "Mrs. Weaver is such a good teacher. And we're so lucky to have the opportunity to do the fish. Most schools don't have this."
Weaver plans to expand the program so more students will want to take part.
She plans to buy 50 fingerlings — baby fish — in March, which will make for an even bigger fish fry.
"It's a lot of work — a lot of money," she said. "But the kids like it. You can see it in their faces when they come in here. I get enthused because they get enthused, and I guess that makes me a better teacher."