Theory Thursday: Aquaponics Helping to Promote Student Engagement

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I am volunteering about three hours per week at our local high school and setting up an aquaponics system with their FFA group. I spoke with the teacher, Marge, after class today and she complemented me on how much more on task the boys in the group are since we began the project. Marge said even the district administrator has noticed a difference. I don’t think that it is me, but rather the philosophy of learning by doing. Any time you give kids a task that has them learning hands-on it becomes much more engaging.

If you want to promote STEM or STEAM, allow kids to DO the work of science.

Sure, we have made mistakes and we have had fits and restarts in building the aquaponics tank structure and leveling it, but with each mistake and restart they have gained experience and knowledge. The class is learning about pH, ammonia concentration, nitrite and nitrate production by various bacteria and how to be careful with an ecosystem. Even adding treated city water to the system can change the  bacterial count.

It is nice to see the enthusiasm shown by the kids in taking charge of the project. We are currently cycling the water to produce nitrates from nitrites by adding ammonia to the system. This prepares the system for the arrival of our 100 tilapia in two weeks. By growing bacteria in the system, it will be ready for fish (that will produce ammonia in the form of urine).

Our system has two 175 gallon tanks that are connected by a siphon. The water from the two tanks is pumped into two grow beds filled with Hydrocorn clay pellets that filter out the fish solids. These two beds have just been planted with over 150 lettuce plants. We are also adding a floating bed of about 28 square feet. Watch for more updates!

Why It’s Time to Make Learning Fun Again

Yesterday afternoon I visited a former student, Tanya. She was in my fifth grade class in 1993. What a joy it was to see her and meet her family. She is tapping maple trees on her property to make syrup. This is something that she learned in my class. We reminisced about all of the things we did in fifth grade. The many field trips, edible wild plants, rockets, and camp.

Tanya, who is now a school board member at my former school, is passing this passion for learning and trying new things to her children. Her family also raises beef, chickens and sheep on four acres of land. Tanya’s husband, Dave is a tool and die maker and is adept at fabricating tools. This led us to a discussion about educational philosophy. We discussed how schools have developed a culture of testing and the negative effects on children. We spoke about how learning should be novel, hands-on and authentic and the importance of play and imagination in the learning process. We talked about how maker’s labs can foster that kind of learning.

Tapping a sugar maple tree!

Sugar maple tree tap.

Too often as teachers, we are overwhelmed with all of the things that we have to get done in our classrooms and it is difficult to step out and develop new things. I want to encourage you as a teacher to put aside the textbook, and engage in something fun and novel for both you and your students.

Yes, it is scary to step out of your comfort zone, but it is equally rewarding for both you and your students. Will you fail? Yes, you probably will at some aspect of your activity. This is how you learn. Revise what went wrong and then set the activity aside for next year and try a new activity. 



If you set a goal of developing a hands-on activity once a week or even once a month it will make your job a lot more fun and will provide for an enjoyable learning experience for your students. Build your repertoire of activities and soon your classroom will be the talk of the school!  

Pi Day Spectacular


Don’t forget about March 14 – 3.14 – also known as Pi Day! Pi Day is a great opportunity for you to encourage exciting and hands-on learning in your classroom teaching about the radius, the diameter, and the circumference of circles. Pi = 3.14159265359… and keeps on going…. We really like to have fun with math. When you make math fun and applicable to real life for students, the principles come to life.

Just as a refresher…the circumference of a circle is determined by multiplying Pi times the diameter (Circumference = Pi x Diameter) . And the area of a circle is determined by multiplying Pi by the radius squared (Area = Pi x Radius2). Pi Day is perfect for exploring this seemingly magic math number. Give your kids challenges for determining area and circumference and then toward the end of class enjoy some pie of your own! Your students will go crazy.

You can also work backwards with these computations. If you know the area of a circle, divide by Pi to get the radius squared (Radius2 = Area / Pi). And if you know the circumference of a circle, divide by Pi to get the diameter (Diameter = Circumference / Pi).

So why is Pi such a big deal? Because it works for EVERY circle! It’s a constant, regardless of the size of the circle!


Sue remembers the Pi equation using this little formula:

Area = Pi Are Squared

No. Pie are round. 

Cakes are square.

….We’re working with some real jokers here….

For some great classroom activities to celebrate Pi Day, check out our Pi Day Spectacular just in time for you to whip together an impressive and fun day for Pi Day on March 14!

Students especially enjoy celebrating with pie or pizza pie at the end of the day!

Lemon meringue, anyone?

Friday Follies: Meet the Parent


I snagged her on the way out the door this morning. She’s going to flip when she sees I used this photo. She thinks she looks terrible – I think she’s adorable!

This morning we’re going to give you a little Behind the Scenes Tour at Brain Brigade. Well, really, I’m going to introduce you to my mom who keeps this place from exploding during our hands-on science projects. My parents have been married for a long time. I don’t exactly know how long because no one here is talking (but…if you ask my four-year old, Finn, he’ll tell you about 500 years). My mom has seen more of my dad’s crazy and creative classroom projects than she can recount. Sometimes my dad tested his science experiments and projects at home. And he’s always making something or tinkering around the house. She has stories to tell.

Sue will be joining us here at the blog a little more regularly. She’s funny. And intelligent. And organized. And she’s got all the dirt on my dad. Sue works for Fisher & Paykel…and is a sleep medicine expert. She has worked in the sleep industry for over 20 years. First as a sleep technologist and now working on the sleep products side helping people with sleep disorders get better sleep. If you have a question, she is not a doctor! But she probably has seen it happen or has some good suggestions to make sleeping easier for those of you who struggle. Leave your comments and fan mail below 😉

When Sue isn’t working you can find her attempting amazing feats while riding a hover board, working on her house (like right now at this moment she’s actually tiling a back splash in her kitchen!), or find her hanging out with her grand-kids (she has five). She also loves to travel. She loves to read. And she totes her little dog, Daisy, around with her often.

Daisy riding the hoverboard!


My dog Odin making little to no attempt to ride the hoverboard…

She has never had a specific hobby, until this week. After learning how to tile her kitchen back splash she is now ready to tile anything.
“It’s so picky and annoying and I loved every minute of it! Even the clean up is easy!” – yes, that is a direct quote!
She’s the ultimate multitasker. And you’re in for a treat!

Why a Maker Space is a MUST in your Classroom


Hello friends. What does it mean to have a maker space in your school? First of all, there is not a standard definition of what a maker space should be. It can be as simple as a corner of your classroom where students can tinker, disassemble a broken computer, make a truss bridge with craft sticks, or just experiment with some safe chemicals. The whole premise is to get ideas flowing, to fail and find solutions through trial and error, to answer the question what if? Or, it can be a dedicated room where there are many high tech machines that can create almost anything you need or want. The two primary factors are cost and space. You can make it what you want based on funding and space and your own comfort zone. The important thing is to get students tinkering, creating, being curious and making connections to real life….authentic learning. Just do it!


Take the first step. Get out of your rut, step into a world where you learn along with your students.
Your students will love the experience and will benefit in ways that you couldn’t imagine.
Once I challenged my students to design a cardboard and duct tape boat that could hold two of them. The finished boat could have only one layer of water-proofing on the exterior. This simple challenge excited them so much that they were doing research on designs, building prototypes and discussing the best way to build their yachts. Of course, some just dove in and started building without any idea of how to do it, but isn’t that what it is all about?
Learning by doing, failing, trying again, and finally reaching success.
Too often, as teachers we want students to follow our guidelines because we are the “experts”, and for purposes of efficiency we can save time. But by making things easier for our students we are missing an important piece in the learning puzzle. Two key ideas, choice and trial and error, are critical to creativity and learning.
Learn more about Designing a Maker Space in your school.