Inside the classroom of Sophie Hayhurst’s horticulture science class at Sabinal High School on a recent cloudy fall morning, a group of about 16 students in grades 10 through 12 enthusiastically awaited their instructions for the day so they could be released outside to check on their plants, and make any tweaks to their aquaponic and hydroponic projects.
Getting out of the classroom and feeding the fish was the priority of one student, whose aquaponics project includes growing sugar snap peas, cilantro and tomatoes, whose nutrients come from the waste created by about 150 goldfish.
Hayhurst said she’s excited about the sugar snap peas because it’s a new food item for many of the students, and they will be able to taste them right from the vine.
Another student was tasked with watering their seedlings in the greenhouse, where the students are growing herbs and vegetables to be sold at the upcoming Sabinal Lions Club Fall Festival.
Some were in the workshop adjacent to the classroom working on repairing a leak in the student designed, student constructed aquaponics project.
Others were checking out their hydroponic system and seeing how much their seedlings had grown. It’s more than just gardening and growing plants, says Hayhurst, it’s also understanding the science behind it.
For example, the students learn about why ammonia created by the goldfish works as a nutrient for the plants. Hint: ammonia is a compound made up of nitrogen and hydrogen, and plants need nitrogen to grow – as explained by one student.
Hayhurst divided the class into groups consisting of boys and girls. The boys tackled the creation of the aquaponics system, which, according to student Anthony Flores, took two separate construction efforts to get the flow of the water just right.
“It was hard because we thought we had it the first time, but we didn’t. We had to re-do,” said Flores. He said his favorite thing about their system is that it is pretty self-sustaining. They’ve had some leaks, but are able to repair them. A proponent of teaching students through year- long project-based learning – where they do cost analysis, schematics, construction, and attempt, fail, and succeed – Hayhurst says she designed the curriculum so that students can take ownership of their learning.
Creating a well rounded academic student is part of what drives Hayhurst to create this hands-on experience. She says she enjoys seeing them problem solve, explore, and use their organizational skills.
Acquiring problem-solving skills was part of the achievement for a group of female students that tackled creating a hydroponic system. They designed the system and constructed it out of wood and PVC pipe.
With smiles all around, the group of four girls recounted that the first frame they built – power tools and all – wasn’t sturdily crafted and fell apart on first try.
They used thicker board, and reinforced their design, and now it is a healthy hydroponic system with about 10 plants growing.
At the onset of the school year, before they could start on their projects, they had to whip the greenhouse and aquaponics and hydroponics stations into shape – cleaning and organizing.
The school district’s greenhouse hadn’t been used for a while, said Hayhurst, and pulling weeds and beautifying the landscape was first on the list.
Student Tori Verstuyft said the hardest thing about that undertaking was the sticker patches they had to remove.
The workshop where the hydroponic and aquaponics are set up was previously used for storage, so students had to clean out that area and make room for their projects.
Hayhurst joined the staff of Sabinal High School this fall. She and her husband relocated from Tennessee, where she built a horticulture program from the ground up, sought funding, wrote grants, and made it a program for the students.
She said there hasn’t been much cost associated with this class, as they were able to use items the school already had. She encourages her students to create projects by repurposing items, for cost and environmental savings.