Bellevue students step out of the classroom for hands-on learning

BELLEVUE, Iowa (AP) — On a recent afternoon, Bellevue High School junior Delaney Dunne carefully used a pair of scissors to remove the leafy green tops from several kale stalks.

She and her classmates, Alivia Wagner and Ryanne Dunn, had grown the plants using a self-contained aquaponics system in high school. Now they were ready to be harvested and sold.

“I love being able to participate in watching everything work,” Delaney told the Dubuque Telegraph Herald. “I didn’t know what aquaponics was before I joined, and learning about it was interesting to me.”

The trio’s project is part of the school’s Bellevue BIG program, where junior and senior students tackle a variety of service-learning projects.

“We’re trying to take our kids out of the traditional learning environment and get them doing things they’re passionate about for the good of the community,” said Matt Cook, a middle and high school science teacher who oversees the aquaponics program.

The school has been offering aquaponics as part of Belle-vue BIG for about five years, growing leafy greens like kale, watercress and lettuce. Recently, however, Ryanne came up with a new addition to the menu, and the tank now features several logs with golden oyster mushrooms growing on them.

“We were thinking of other things that we could develop. I really love mushrooms and just wanted to grow foods that I loved, she said.

The aquaponics system starts with a large tank that holds around 100 catfish. The water from this tank, rich in nutrients from fish waste, flows through a filtration system and into the tank where the plants are grown before recirculating back to the fish tank.

The three students divide the daily tasks related to the maintenance of the system, including cleaning the filters, feeding the fish and monitoring the temperature and pH of their water.

Alivia said the aquaponics program taught her important skills such as responsibility and time management.

“It’s a daily task,” she says. “You need to arrive at a certain time each day and make sure you have enough time to do your job.”

The three also honed their communication and business skills by selling their products to individual buyers and community organizations, such as the Mill Valley Care Center.

Cook said about 20 students attend Bellevue BIG. In addition to the aquaponics project, other students are partnering with the Jackson County Humane Society to boost adoption efforts, redoing the basement of a former Bellevue button factory and creating metal signs at the using CNC manufacturing.

Delaney and Ryanne said the tactile nature of aquaponics work was particularly impactful for them.

“I feel like I learn better on the job than sitting down and staring at a computer,” Delaney said.