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Local college students used a state grant to establish a project to grow plants using just water and nutrients from fish waste.

Wartburg College Ioponics was one of 12 programs that received the Iowa STEM Scale-Up Program Grant for the 2021-22 academic year. This grant provides Iowa classrooms with STEM educational opportunities including classroom lessons, complete system equipment, professional development, and living plants/animals.

The concept of classroom aquaponics was first developed in 2014 and since has grown exponentially. Several undergraduate campus research grants and the Iowa Science Foundation (Iowa Academy of Science) have supported the advancement of Ioponics.

Wartburg Ioponics submitted information regarding the evidence from the last seven years of research and system placements. Some of the descriptors included effective reach to diverse learners, positive community and institution impact, cost benefit projections, long-term system sustainability, alignment to the Iowa Core and more.

Classroom aquaponics, specifically named Ioponics, is the combination of aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (growing plants without soil) in an integrated system using aerobic bacteria that transforms fish waste (NO21-) into nutrients (NO31-) for plants. The idea of aquaponics has been around for centuries, we are just making it accessible to students of all ages.

The process involves a hands-on, minds-on, researchable process of raising aquatic animals and plants in a controlled micro-ecosystem within the school walls. NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards) and AFNR (Agriculture Food and Natural Resources) Standards were the basis for the educational material. The system is coupled with cross-curricular lessons and ancillaries for the pK-4, 5-8, and 9-12 grade levels.

During the research process, three systems (micro – 2 gallon, tabletop – 30-gallon, and floor – 75-gallon) were constructed for individual classroom use in pK-12 academic institutions. In 2018, systems were built and placed in Iowa classrooms in Cedar Falls, Waterloo and Waverly. Additional schools in Iowa (Postville, Waterloo Christian and Denver) were added in 2019. Van Meter, Ankeny, Grinnell, Anamosa, Marcus and Janesville have Ioponics systems in 2020.

The animals in the aquaponics units have consisted of tilapia, catfish, goldfish, prawns and freshwater lobster. The exemplary plants are lettuce, basil, tomatoes, peppers, strawberries and wolfberries. Further research is taking place currently on sustainable substitutes for flora and fauna. Ideally, flora and fauna within the system will be locale specific depending on the final placement, state-wide and nationally.

Currently, there is a team of four pre-service educators, Sadie Short, Class of ‘21, of Dodge Center, Minnesota, Becca Montgomery, Class of ‘22, of White Bear Lake, Minnesota, Sidney Baumgartner, Class of ‘22, of Le Mars, and Michaela Dehli Class of ‘23, of Waukon, that work alongside Dr. Michael Bechtel and Mr. Eric Berns to continue creating, developing, and implementing additional Ioponics systems and materials.

Brainstorming has been done with Dan Bechtel, of Waukon, Derek Happel, of Waverly, and Travis Angell, of Waverly, to problem solve the systems. We are currently working with Chad Wilkins from Rotocast in Decorah to create a die to update our aquaponics model.

This team has curated information that has been shared at many state, national, and international educational conferences throughout the years. Including but not limited to: STEM Day at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, National Science Teaching Association Conference in St. Louis, Chicago and Minneapolis, National Agriculture in the Classroom in Little Rock, Salt Lake City and Des Moines and Hawaii International Conference on Education in Honolulu.

“Our team has worked hard over the last couple of years to make this project a reality, and we are very excited to show everyone how an aquaponics system can be instrumental in science education,” Dr. Bechtel said.

To find out more information about Ioponics, please visit If you would like to request a system in your classroom, please visit

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