UA Project Trains Native American High School Students to Build Aquaponic Systems

Tucson, Arizona - Today, that idea has been developed into a partnership that teaches students from tribal communities to build aquaponic systems to expand the growth of foods important to Native communities.

In the year since Valenzuela's visit, members of the UA chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and the Native American Science and Engineering Program launched the Aquaponics and Native Seeds Project with $30,000 from the University of Arizona Green Fund, a program funded by student fees that allocates up to $400,000 annually to support projects that make the UA a more sustainable place to live, work and learn.

To date, UA students and employees involved with the Aquaponics and Native Seeds Project have trained 24 high school students to build aquaponic systems and grow plants from indigenous seeds, including "slow-bolt" cilantro, Yoeme basil, Hopi red dye, Jericho lettuce, arugula and Tarahumara chia.

The high school students are sent back to implement the systems "to provide the schools with a powerful, engaging tool to facilitate student success in a hands-on way," said Ace Charette, coordinator at Early Academic Outreach at the UA.

The aquaponic systems are similar to ponds and are "closed-loop," meaning the water in the tank is continuously cycled. Two major benefits of the systems is that they are designed to use less water than traditional methods and grow plants at a faster rate – important considerations for desert lands, Charette said.

The systems are filled with different types of fish, including channel catfish and tilapia. Together, the fish and the plants develop and sustain a cooperative growth relationship: The fish produce waste that fuels the growth of the plants. Also, by absorbing the waste, the plants filter the water, which means less water is used.

"The systems will create a student-run food sustainability initiative that grows a high yield of indigenous foods while consuming a fraction of the water compared to traditional gardening and farming," Charette said. The systems reduce the amount of water consumption by as much as 90 percent, he said.

Valenzuela, a senior at Ha:ṣan Preparatory & Leadership School on the Tohono O'odham Nation and a NASEP member, originally proposed his idea to Charette, saying he believed such a project would help build stronger communities and help expand sustainability partnerships at the UA.

"The aquaponic systems will not only teach the community how to grow its own produce, but it will benefit my own community by selling the produce," said Valenzuela, who in 2013 built the first aquaponic system at his high school through a partnership with Tierra y Libertad, a community group. He will be advising students and staff at Ha:ṣan on how to monitor the water and the fish in the systems.

In addition to the 24 NASEP students, five UA undergraduates and one graduate student have also built 10-gallon aquaponic tanks and are now managing the systems, growing the indigenous plants. They are also trying to determine a system and location for selling the produce grown in the tanks.

The UA team has placed systems at Ha:ṣan Preparatory, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe's Hiaki High School, the UA's Native American Research and Training Center, the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Cooperative Extension in Tucson, Sunnyside High School and Amphitheater High School. 

"The systems show different forms of agriculture that they may consider outside of traditional soil-based agriculture, which could potentially lead to a change in dietary habits, increased planting of cultural herbs and plants, and exploration of agricultural produce," said Alden Yazzie, a UA pre-computer science sophomore and treasurer of AISES. Yazzi helped build the system at the Native American Research and Training Center.

Charette also another aim of the project is to promote connections between schools on tribal lands and the UA by informing participants about the college-going process and encouraging them to explore science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the STEM disciplines.

"By exposing students to new gardening and farming techniques, many of them may approach aquaponics with unique knowledge about growing practices to benefit an entire classroom," Charette said. "Also, any interest that these systems develop in students will ultimately help them to prepare for academic pursuits at the UA."