Earlier this month, the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO) was named the nation’s recipient of the Presidential Award for Economic Opportunity, certifying UNO as a higher education leader in community engagement.
The award, which is part of the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll, is the highest honor a university or college can receive by the United States government for its commitment to volunteering, service-learning and civic engagement.
The announcement of this year’s Honor Roll, made by Corporation for National and Community Service, identifies UNO as one of only four Presidential Award-level recipients and the only winner nationally for creating economic opportunity through community engagement efforts.
Read on below to learn about one of our award-winning projects, Aquaponics.
According to Data from Feed America and Livewell Nebraska, there are more than 34,000 children who are “food insecure” in Omaha and over half of those in food insecure areas rarely eat fresh fruit and vegetables.
As a way to help stem the tide of these impoverished conditions, the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s (UNO) Service Learning Academy has partnered UNO students with students from King Science and Technology Magnet Center Middle School and Whispering Roots, an Omaha-based food education nonprofit, to create a new way to grow food and battle hunger.
Whispering Roots utilizes an innovative farming technique called aquaponics, which combines elements of aquaculture (raising fish) with hydroponics (growing plants in liquid) to grow food. The technique recycles waste water from tilapia tanks, which is then is pumped into plant grow beds lined with clay, to act as a natural fertilizer for the plants. As the plants filter out nutrients, the resulting clean water is returned to the tank. The technique produces up to 30% more crops while using 90% less water than traditional growing methods.
“The plants are getting all their nutrients from the fish water,” explained DeAjai Denton, a participating eighth grader, in a story published in a November 2013 issue of Omaha Magazine. “You don’t need soil, you need the nutrients that come from the soil. Or in this case, the nutrients that come from the fish.”
The aquaponics project allows students to raise seedlings, monitor pH levels, and study the various impacts on the ecosystem from using different fish species with the assistance of UNO science students from a variety of backgrounds including chemistry, biology, and urban studies. The students are completely responsible for building and maintaining their classroom aquaponic ecosystems and then for harvesting the produce as donations to local food pantries and homeless shelters! The food is also used for the schools’ own afterschool communities, providing fresh produce to eat.
In 2013, King Science students also participated in creating video lessons, showing other schools how to properly maintain and operate the aquaponic systems. In doing so, they gained presentation and communication skills while simultaneously reinforcing their STEM knowledge.
At the college level, UNO students are given the opportunity for mentorship, presentations and leading discussion on topics such as the carbon-water-nitrogen cycle, alternative energy resources, and the impact of chemical pollutants on the environment.
The Service Learning participants stay in close contact to coordinate future activities and review implementation techniques. For example, an assigned graduate assistant coordinates the logistics of the projects and collects critical tracking data in hopes of continually improving future implementation of the project.
The project is organized out of UNO’s Service Learning Academy through its P-16 Initiative, which brings together K-12 students with UNO students and area nonprofits to solve community problems while applying classroom lessons.
In early 2014, the Aquaponics was named one of the top 15 technology projects in the nation as part of the Samsung “Solve for Tomorrow” competition and was presented at the South by Southwest Education Conference in Austin, Texas. The project was also the recipient of the “Outstanding School Volunteer Program Award” at the Nebraska First Lady’s Outstanding Community Service Awards luncheon in April.