As the ECOLIFE team headed to Fulton K-8 to begin construction of their ECO-Garden aquaponics system, the sky turned gray and threatened rain – rare to San Diego. With thunder in the distance and raindrops pattering against the dark asphalt of the southbound I-15, we were ready for our rainy day build.

Students get ready to plant

Students get ready to plant in their new ECO-Garden

Pulling through the gates of Fulton we were greeted by a swarm of eager children anxious to put their aquaponic knowledge to use. Needless to say, the gloominess of the day was not reflected in the spirits of these excited middle schoolers. With all hands on deck, the students unloaded bags of potting soil, cans of paint, a 250-gallon fish reservoir, cinder blocks, plumbing supplies, and of course, many seeds to plant.

In addition to a 250-gallon aquaponics system, the school was given two hanging gardens and troughs, which students chose to fill with tomatoes and basil. Once fully up-and-running, the ECO-Garden should produce enough greens to enhance the lunches of Fulton’s 350 students for years to come. This project-based learning experience incorporates Next Generation Science Standards, Science Technology Engineering and Math, while creating positive environmental awareness within our community.

The garden will be utilized as a living lab, growing not only fresh vegetables and fish, but also encouraging greater awareness of how sustainable technologies can better conserve our precious resources.

Yonis and Connor

Yonis and Connor

“We are learning about important topics such as animals and biodiversity, sustainability, properly measuring pH levels; and this hands-on experience allows them to understand the Why,” said Miss Zeran when asked what intrigued her about the ECO-Garden Program. “Why are we learning these things?”  Miss Zeran added, “the children’s excitement and positive learning atmosphere helped us gain perspective on the importance of ECOLIFE’s mission, to provide our youth with a foundation of environmentally-conscious methods of farming and learning.”

One of the most impactful examples of the ECO-Garden’s benefit is the story of Yonas; a very shy 6th grader. On this day Miss Zeran eagerly engaged all of her students in the project at hand. One, however, was less comfortable around all of the excitement. Noticeably withdrawn from the group was a young man whose interest for the garden was outweighed by his own inhibitions. The ECOLIFE team encouraged his involvement in the project with the hopes a breakthrough could be made.

Rainy day, all smiles!

Rainy day, all smiles!

It wasn’t until the following week that we received an ecstatic phone call from Miss Zeran reporting on her class’ involvement with their new ECO-Garden. She shared that her students had been leading the lower grade classrooms out to the garden to teach a lesson in aquaponics! Of course we were delighted to hear of these students speaking to their younger school mates about aquaponics, plant life, and the water cycle. The best part was when Miss Zeran told us about a specific student. This student was so enthralled by the nitrogen cycle, and how the plants receive nourishment while purifying the water for the fish. He felt this information was too important not to share with all who would listen. He enthusiastically instructed the younger students on how to test the water quality for ample nitrate levels. Who was this young lecturer? None other than the reserved boy who had held back on construction day, Yonas!  He’d decided that the information he had learned working with the ECO-Garden was too significant to keep to himself.

This story illustrates how spectacular it can be when disengaged students are introduced to exciting, hands-on learning methods. Putting the knowledge in the hands of these students creates a more in-depth and personal bond with the subject matter. Students like Yonas inspire ECOLIFE to continue empowering our youth through project-based learning in order to create positive change for our planet.

Written by Connor Leone, Aquaponics Educational Coordinator for ECOLIFE. To learn more about our ECO-Garden program, please visit our website

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