Firm Looks to Build an Aquaponics Culture in the Desert Through STEM Education
December 19, 2013 | Trish Popovitch
Beginning an aquaponics education and consulting business in the arid climate that is Arizona is not for everyone. It requires experience in engineering, science, botany and business, not to mention decades of research into aquaculture.
Fortunately, George B. Brooks, Jr., Ph.D. and James T. Hicks, founders of RighTrac Inc., a Phoenix based aquaponic-consulting firm offering a comprehensive sustainability curriculum for all educational levels, have that experience.
RighTrac Inc. offers educational, nonprofit and civic organizations the information necessary to educate people on the future of America’s water use, sustainable farming and food equality through the teaching of aquaculture. RighTrac Inc. is a for-profit company that charges a fee for its services, and is currently involved in a number of aquaponics-based projects around the Phoenix region and in developing curriculum for schools.
Dr. George B. Brooks began his career working as an intern for USDA Water Conservation Laboratory studying aquaculture in 1977. He studied fishery science, aquaculture and environmental science in college and is a well-known public speaker and lecturer in the field of aquaponics.
In the early 2000s, Brooks was instrumental in developing a STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) curriculum for use in an Indian youth rehabilitation project called the O’odham Oidak (translated as the people’s fields), a fish and shrimp farm in Arizona’s Gila River Indian Community.
Hicks is an established civic leader, entrepreneur and business man in Arizona. A retired Honeywell engineer, he provides the business and engineering experience that complements Brooks’ knowledge of sustainability and science.
Together, the pair hopes to move urban Arizona towards a more sustainable, energy efficient food production future through the growth of aquaponics. At the same time, they see aquaponics as a tool for STEM education and as way to lift families out of poverty.
“The best way of looking at it was not how to be sustainable, but what problems we can solve through sustainability,” says Brooks. “How can we use these great tools that we have to solve contemporary problems?”
Brooks and Hicks’ current focus is teaching their aquaponics and aquaculture-based curriculum to students.
“We partnered with a middle school where we do field aquaculture and in-class aquaponics as a way of teaching children science, technology, engineering, and math,” says Brooks. “It’s amazing how much science you can learn from growing a tomato or growing a tilapia.”
One group of students that implemented Brooks’ aquaponics teaching system won the local and state science fairs, then ranked fourth at an international science fair, ultimately earning scholarships for college.
Brooks has examined the City of Phoenix’s sustainability capabilities and believes that aquaponics presents an opportunity for this desert urban heat island to cool down and become a leader in sustainable farming.
“We see that urban agriculture is part of the opportunity to reverse the heat island effect,” explains Brooks. “When you add more green space, things cool down. We are hoping that aquaponics will be part of that fix.”
RighTrac Inc.’s research has shown over 76 species or varieties of food can be produced in Phoenix using aquaponics.
Not only do RighTrac Inc.’s founders see their work as raising farmers and educating students, but they also hope to aid in revitalizing the neighborhoods of urban food deserts by teaching the local population how to grow their own food through aquaponics.
“It’s not a panacea, but it can be part of that fix as far as individual families using this methodology that we’re working on to improve the amount of food they produce at a lower cost that it would take to go buy it at the store,” says Brooks. “We can help them to reduce the cost of living and improve their quality of life.”