One year ago, Brandon Allen, a senior at Miami Northwestern Senior High School, did not know what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
With guidance from The Education Effect, FIU’s partnership with the Liberty City school, Allen signed up for an environmental science class on aquaponics.
Like most of his classmates, Brandon didn’t know anything about aquaponics, a self-sustaining agricultural process that involves growing fish and using nutrients present in its waste to fertilize edible plants.
Through the newly unveiled aquaponics lab at Miami Northwestern – the largest of its kind in Miami-Dade County – Brandon and dozens of other students have learned biology, chemistry and engineering in a hands-on way.
“It piqued my interest for something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Allen said.
Brandon’s work, along with that of his classmates, Miami Northwestern teachers and faculty from the Agroecology Program in the Department of Earth and Environment, came to a culmination Oct. 17 with the grand opening of the aquaponics lab and organic garden at the school. The lab has two levels of herbs, vegetables and edible plants on scaffolding and a six-foot-deep water container beneath that to raise tilapia. Water cycles from the fish to the plants, carrying the nutrients from one to the other.
FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg said the university’s partnership with Miami Northwestern represents FIU’s commitment to being a “solutions center” for the community.
“Our university will take responsibly to make sure that our community will get better,” he said. “That is what we are all about. We could not have done this without the support of JPMorgan Chase.”
Joining in the ribbon-cutting celebration were FIU’s Vice President for Engagement Irma Becerra-Fernandez; Wallace Aristide, principal at Miami Northwestern; former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, who chairs the JPMorgan Chase Foundation; and dozens of student ambassadors from Miami Northwestern.
“It has taken a village to make this day possible,” Becerra-Fernandez said. “[The aquaponics lab and organic garden] will enable students to pursue careers in STEM-related fields.”
From demonstrating the growth of tomatoes and basil to the raising of pure blue tilapia, Miami Northwestern students provided guests with one-on-one tours of the lab and garden.
“It is a more innovative way to teach students,” said Allen, who plans to attend FIU after he graduates. “People can see that this can impact the whole entire world.”
After the ribbon cutting, FIU and Chase also announced the funding for a new grant with FIU at Miami Northwestern called The Education Effect/Plant it Forward, in conjunction with FIU’s Office of Engagement and the Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management.
The initiative will build upon existing programs at Miami Northwestern to expose students to careers in the food and hospitality industry and teach them entrepreneurial skills.
Students will manage the lab, learn about sustainable urban agriculture, tend to grow boxes, share their produce at food stands and mobile markets throughout Liberty City, and teach cooking and nutrition lessons at schools, churches and community events.
In addition, students from FIU’s Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) will collaborate with MNW on the design and implementation of produce stands and bicycle-powered blenders that can be used to create smoothies and other healthy snacks.
“This provides the opportunity to demonstrate the impact that The Education Effect/Plant it Forward grant will have on our students, our parents and the community of Miami Northwestern Senior High School,” Aristide said.
Liberty City is one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Miami. The produce harvested will assist the community in its fight against hunger.
“The goal is to connect the science that they learn in the classroom to help the community and the school.” said Maria Lovett, partnership director for The Education Effect. “Our students are action-researchers investigating issues that impact their community.”
Launched in 2011, The Education Effect is a partnership between FIU and Miami-Dade County Public Schools, supported by JPMorgan Chase.
Funded by a $1 million seed grant from Chase, the partnership includes the construction of the aquaponics lab, part of the agroecology program at Miami Northwestern, visits to FIU, a financial literacy program and enhanced dual enrollment courses.
“The Education Effect is here,” said Miami-Dade County Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. “This is a trickle up and a trickle down effect that is being seen and felt around our community.”
“The opening of this aquaponics lab is a combination of the work we did together,” Sen. Martinez added. “It demonstrates what The Education Effect is all about.”
In less than three years, The Education Effect has helped Miami Northwestern go from a D-rated school to a B-rated school. Aristide said he expects the school to receive an A in the next grading cycle.
The opening of the aquaponics lab and organic garden was held in conjunction with Chase’s One America tour, which encourages volunteering in local communities throughout the nation.
During the event, volunteers from Hands On Miami, Hands On Broward and Chase packaged more than 1,000 mobile garden bags for students and residents of Liberty City.
The tour included a visit from celebrity chef Jose Andres, who received a Daily Point of Light award for his work to end hunger through his organization, World Central Kitchen.