February 01, 2001 1 min read

A hundred tilapia fish swim in a 600-gallon tank. Researchers monitor water levels and distribute food with precision. Tilapia—fast-growing, high- protein fish—are the subject of much scientific inquiry these days as a possible source of food for hungry populations around the world. But this is no laboratory; it’s Mike White’s science class at Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School in Paxton, Illinois.

PBL High is one of about 40 schools that have received fish tanks from the Illinois School Board since 1992 as part of the state’s push to encourage the growth of aquaculture as a new economic activity in Illinois’ farming communities. White has taught aquaculture units at the rural school since 1994. The 29-year-old science teacher likes the opportunities aquaculture provides students to get their hands dirty—er, wet. “Any time the content of science and science coming to life merge, it grabs students’ attention. And they retain the image and information together more easily,” he says.

Each semester, White provides information on farming tilapia, then turns the project over to the kids. Students become responsible for maintaining the system outside regular class time. While their objective is to grow the fish to maturity, learning takes precedence over keeping them alive. “For example,” says White, “the other week our nitrogen levels were very high, and it was the responsibility of students to correct the issue, which they did. I don’t care if the fish had died as long as [the students] understood why. Trial and error is a better gauge of learning than simply answering questions on a test.”

White’s class also helps inspire students to consider new types of agricultural careers. Senior Greg Niewold, 18, enrolled in the class last year simply to fulfill a requirement for membership in the Future Farmers of America club, but, he says: “Mr. White opened my eyes to a different side of the agricultural field. This class gives students serious ideas of other choices besides traditional crop and animal farming. My father is a hog farmer, and I’d probably have become one, too, except now I want to explore agricultural teaching.”

And what happens to the fish at the end of the year? Students hold a fish fry to raise donations to support the program. “Turns out besides being good teaching tools, they are quite tasty too!” says White.

—Kate Ryan