hands-on learning in a school oasis

Michelle Liu
October 02, 2023

From spearmint to basil to cilantro, all kinds of herbs are growing on the sprawling campus of Jefferson Elementary School in Waikiki. But instead of soil, the garden in the original 21st Century Learning Center is powered entirely by fish.

Students came up with the idea for an aquaponics garden eight years ago and Principal Garret Zakahi was happy to bring it to life.

Zakahi, Andree Paradis, and her students show off Manoa lettuce grown in the aquaponics garden.

“Students are always at the heart of any school administrator’s decision-making process,” Zakahi says. “Our students wanted to learn about different types of gardening and compare traditional gardens with 21st century gardens.”

That’s why he transformed an old tennis court into an aquaponics garden. Students learn about the delicate, symbiotic relationship between plants and fish, where the waste produced by fish provides plants with nutrients. The plants purify the water that returns to the fish tank.

“We’re teaching them that life is all about balance. Humans, animals, and plants all need to live in balance to thrive,” says Zakahi.

Ti leaves, kalo plants, and hybrid tilapia living in balance in the school's 3,000-gallon pond.

Science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) teachers incorporate the garden into their curriculum. Students have studied growth rates on certain types of plants. They’ve experimented with filtered and unfiltered water and how each impacts the growth of blue tilapia.

Andree Paradis has been teaching the school’s youngest students about earth science. Kindergarteners and first and second graders are learning what makes up soil, the difference between aquaculture and gardening, and the importance of composting.

“My students are developing a love of nature and the environment, learning how to take care of it, and giving back to the planet in a positive way,” Paradis says.

“Students are learning the vision that we set for our learning centers – connecting classroom knowledge with real-world, hands-on, inquiry-based learning opportunities,” Zakahi says. “We’re all connecting with our aina.”

A student checks in on the Manoa lettuce growing in the aquaponics garden.

The 21st Century Learning Center has expanded over the years. While the original Learning Center focuses on aquaponics, Learning Center II is filled with hydroponics systems that grows lettuce to feed students’ families, faculty, and staff. But the produce is just a bonus to these hands-on science lessons.

“Our keiki are learning about the importance of taking care of our aina and appreciating everything it gives to us,” Zakahi says.

Photos courtesy Earl Yoshii

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