• New Brunswick teacher Patrick Halford

    Patrick Halford teaches hands-on skills such as woodworking and coding so that his students can learn to use what they've learned in practical, real-world applications. (Photo: Patrick Halford)

Patrick Halford teaches Grades 6 to 8 technology and Library Learning Commons at Forest Hills School in Saint John, N.B. In the library, he gets to see every class in the school come through on rotation and helps students work on whatever projects they are interested in, letting their passions guide their learning.

The biggest project he’s been working on with students is to create an aquaponic greenhouse garden, which was inspired by a cultural exchange his students went on last year to Listuguj Mi’kmaq First Nation, Que.

On the cultural exchange that started the aquaponics project

The entire exchange was organized by another teacher, Tomalyn Young. They didn't have a male chaperone for the trip, so they just took me along. It turned out to be a really great experience. We went up there with 15 students and participated in some traditional Mi’kmaq First Nations’ activities, such as basket weaving, making dream catchers, and a smudging ceremony. Our students got to know each other really well, really quickly and are still continuing those friendships throughout the school year. I think that if we really want to focus on reconciliation, the best way to do that is to start those friendships with our students young. That's when you form those meaningful bonds and friendships, and they really get to understand one another's culture. 

We brainstormed as a staff when we got back to have a way to honour that relationship and show them how much we appreciated them having us up there. We wanted to continue to develop that relationship we built with the community in Listuguj and we thought a good way to do that would be to install a traditional medicine garden at our school and then facilitate a community garden. Our main goal was to kind of have a partnership where they would do something similar up there, and then when we get together we'd be able to share our harvests together.

Students learned about traditional practices and values of the Mi'kmaq on their cultural exchange to Listuguj, Que. (Photo: Patrick Halford)

On the aquaponics garden

Basically how aquaponics works is all your vegetables are essentially grown in water. You have a growth medium to support whatever you have, and we started with clay pebbles, and that acts as your soil so that your root structure is supported. Then there's a water reservoir underneath that has fish in it. The entire process relies on the nitrogen cycle which is one continuous loop. All you're doing is feeding the fish and they produce waste that goes through a couple different filters and fertilizes the plants, and then the plants return filtered, clean water back into the fish reservoir. Then the process starts all over again. 

The students are fascinated by it, especially when you explain exactly what's going on. And then you can actually pick up things and show them the root structure or show them what certain fish species really thrive in what pH environment and then match that up with the vegetable so they can both thrive together in the same environment.

I have always found that although kids learn so many different ways, I haven't found a kid that hasn't learned from doing. I'm always big on asking what are you interested in? What do you want to learn about? Choice is a big thing — it engages them a lot more than if I'm just standing in front of the room and I'm saying, okay, we're going to work on this this week. 

The first prototype of the aquaponics garden that Halford created with his students, hooked up to a fish pond.  (Photo: Patrick Halford)

On why they chose aquaponics over a traditional garden 

We can only garden at school. We have the month of May to get things set up, and even then, you really can't put anything in the ground that early just because of frost. Then we'd have to rely on volunteers and things like that through summertime to maintain our community garden. Then students return in the fall, and they have maybe a couple weeks in September to learn about it a little bit more. So our goal was to have a winterized greenhouse that we could use the entire school year. The efficiency of using aquaponics is that you're able to produce more than you would with traditional growing methods. We can maximize what we're producing and we can teach them about this alternative growing method that hopefully they can use when they leave school. You can replicate the process indoors pretty easily, which we've shown them just in my classroom. 

Also, the school I'm working in has a lot of students that come from low socio-economic bracket areas, and they rely on our breakfast program and our brown bag lunch program. That is obviously helpful, but our needs are a little bit more than that. I tell students: how great would it be if we could grow our own food here at the school and be able to feed some of our kids that need a little bit of extra help? I think kids are really empathetic with that.

On what he wants students to take away from the experience

I want them to see innovation. Just because we've done things a certain way for a really long time doesn't necessarily mean that's the best way to do things. I don't want to totally scrap everything that historically has worked either, but it's about trying new things. I think one of the big things I try to offer kids is to take risks. Three years ago, I had no idea what aquaponics were, but they see me learning along with them and they trust me ... they have seen a lot of my failures as well! They'll encourage me to keep trying things just like I encourage them to keep trying things. Kids are a lot more capable and a lot more resilient than we give them credit for all the time, and they understand a lot of the bigger issues going on in the world. If we frame things properly for them and can show them the impact in their own lives or in their community, they can really start to make a difference.