Research Summary

A Case Study of Indoor Garden-Based Learning With Hydroponics and Aquaponics: Evaluating Pro-Environmental Knowledge, Perception, and Behavior Change

Middle School Aquaponics Curriculum Can Increase Environmental Knowledge and Pro-Environmental Behaviors

Applied Environmental Education & Communication

Garden-based learning can help students better understand sustainability and potentially have a positive impact on food security. Though little previous research exists, other studies have found links between these pedagogies and an increase in healthy eating, knowing more about the environment, taking pro-environmental behaviors (PEBs) and having pro-environmental attitudes. Because the school year largely does not coincide with the growing season, hydroponics and aquaponics—agricultural methods to grow food indoors—could be used in place of outdoor gardens. This study evaluated the impact of an experiential, hands-on aquaponics curriculum for 5th and 6th graders. Specifically, the authors investigated whether this curriculum increased awareness of and knowledge about environmental issues in participants’ community, as well as if it had any impact on participants PEBs or environmental attitudes.

The study took place in upstate New York. Two schools with similar demographics were selected for participation: a control classroom of 17 5th graders at a private school, which did not use the aquaponics curriculum; and a treatment classroom of 15 combined 5th and 6th graders at an independent school. The treatment classroom received 12 1-hour lessons on aquaponics, hydroponics, composting, and food systems. More specifically, topics included watersheds, pro-environmental behaviors, sustainable agriculture, and plant- and scientific-literacy. In addition, the treatment classroom built and maintained a hydroponics system. Students were responsible for the care and feeding of the fish, planting seeds, and measuring and monitoring water quality in the system. The control classroom did not receive the curriculum.

Students in both groups completed questionnaires to measure environmental knowledge and environmental attitudes before and after the curriculum was administered. All students also participated in focus groups and interviews; the treatment group’s parents and teacher participated in focus groups and interviews as well. These discussions were designed to help researchers understand what impact, if any, the curriculum had on PEBs. The survey data was analyzed statistically, while the authors looked for emerging themes in the focus group and interview data.

The study found a statistically significant increase in environmental knowledge among the students in the treatment classroom compared to those who did not receive the aquaponics curriculum. In addition, the researchers found that students in the treatment classroom mentioned doing more environmental behaviors after the curriculum; students in the control classroom did not report an increase. Specifically, 81% more students in the treatment classroom composted after the curriculum compared to before. Teachers corroborated this increase, noting instances in which students were thinking critically and acting on what they had learned. In addition, the parents of treatment group students reported that their children were doing more PEBs at home. Nearly all of the students (86%) shared what they had learned with their family.

The subjects of sustainable versus industrial agriculture seemed to be particularly engaging for students: half of the treatment group mentioned sustainability with regards to their eating habits post-curriculum, whereas none had mentioned it prior. The majority of students (80%) preferred the hands-on pedagogy, and, unexpectedly, teachers felt that two students with ADHD particularly thrived.

While the study found conclusive positive outcomes for environmental knowledge and environmental behaviors, the impact of the hydroponics curriculum on environmental attitudes was less clear. Furthermore, the study relies largely on self-reported changes in PEBs, which may have been overstated. Relatively few students participated in this study, thus more research is needed to determine whether these impacts are seen in other settings—particularly given how little research presently exists on indoor gardening curricula in general.

The authors recommend that additional classrooms implement hands-on indoor gardening lessons similar to the hydroponics curriculum in this study. In addition, even though this study looked at private institutions, they feel that similar curricula would be appropriate for public school classrooms and could easily be worked into existing curricula.

The Bottom Line

Indoor garden-based learning has the potential to help foster sustainable food behaviors and improve food security. This study evaluated the effectiveness of an aquaponics curriculum on 5th and 6th grade students’ environmental knowledge, attitudes, and pro-environmental behaviors, and compared them to another classroom that did not participate in the curriculum. The authors found that students in the treatment classroom learned and applied environmental knowledge, such as an increase in composting and considering the sustainability of their food. The impact on environmental attitudes was unclear, and students—particularly two with learning disabilities—clearly favored the hands-on pedagogy. More research is needed on the impact of indoor garden-based learning, thus the authors recommend that additional classrooms incorporate hydro- and aquaponics curricula.