RUSKIN, Fla. — Students are willing to get their hands slimy to learn about aquaculture. Youth in about 150 middle and high schools around Florida learn the aquaculture industry through the “Aquaculture in the Classroom” program, a partnership between public schools and UF/IFAS Extension. That’s more than a seven-fold increase in school participation from 2008, when the program started.
Aquaculture serves many purposes including food production, restoration of threatened and endangered species populations, building of aquariums and fish cultures and habitat restoration. Aquaculture is a multimillion-a-year industry in Florida, and it’s one in which students, their parents and community members know youth can make an impact.
Through “Aquaculture in the Classroom,” UF/IFAS researchers and Extension faculty help teachers boost students’ aquaculture knowledge to the point where they’re educated consumers, said Eric Cassiano, an assistant Extension scientist at the UF/IFAS Tropical Aquaculture Lab (TAL) in Ruskin, Florida, near Tampa.
In the program, students learn about ornamental, food and bait fish, all of which contribute to Florida’s aquaculture industry. Aquaculture brought in about $71.6 million in sales in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
As the point person for “Aquaculture in the Classroom,” Cassiano loves to go to Florida middle and high schools and find out which students might be interested in knowing more about the industry.
He recalled visiting Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando recently.
“You think you can pick out the students who want to learn about aquaculture, but it’s amazing how many others will hold up their hands and say they want to know about the aquaculture industry,” Cassiano said. “They don’t mind getting slimy and dirty and working with fish.”
Increasingly, students want to learn more about the industry. The program has grown from about 20 schools when it started in 2008 to about 150 statewide now. The increase stems from several factors. The most important of those is simple: student interest.
For the most part, aquaculture is taught in either agriculture or science classes, and the agriculture classrooms are often on the outer edges of school campuses. But it’s not uncommon to see a 400-gallon fish tank in a classroom at school, Cassiano said.
On Feb. 10, Cassiano will speak about Florida’s middle and high school program at “Aquaculture America 2020,” a national conference of aquaculture scientists, in Honolulu, Hawaii.
There’s no set statewide curriculum yet for aquaculture. But Cassiano predicts that will change. For one thing, students now can get an aquaculture certificate, provided through the Florida Aquaculture Association. To attain the certificate, they must go through one year of aquaculture training in high school or spend 150 hours on an aquaculture farm and pass a test.
There’s also the annual competition April 9 at the lab in Ruskin.
At the FFA Aquaculture Career Development Event (CDE), middle and high school students from around Florida answer test questions to qualify for the competition.
Students must show high acumen in fish taxonomy – they distinguish types of fish – in the early rounds of the CDE. Those who reach the final round get to show their creativity, Cassiano said. That’s where they show how they propose to solve an aquaculture issue. Powerpoints are OK, but not encouraged. Some student groups perform skits, but whatever they do, “it’s always fun,” he said.
To find out more about the program, contact Cassiano at email@example.com.
–Brad Buck, UF/IFAS