Tortolita Middle School’s aquaponics system is a 48-square-foot, self-contained ecosystem that shows the way plants and animals nourish each other. The system features two fish ponds and a 450-gallon rainwater collection tank. 

Courtesy Kathleen Neighbors

It’s one thing to teach students about environmental science via lectures, textbooks or videos. It’s another to have them create it and experience it themselves.

That’s the lesson plan at Tortolita Middle School’s service learning class, which created an aquaponic system that shows the way plants and animals nourish one another.

The 48-square-foot area has two ponds with koi, tilapia and catfish. Styrofoam rafts support kale and tomatoes, which take root in the water below. The fish waste serves as fertilizer for the plants, which in turn feed the fish in the self-contained ecosystem.

There’s also a 450-gallon rainwater collection tank that is meant to eventually make the garden water self-sufficient.

The Marana Unified School District school is at 4101 W. Hardy Road.

Working in concert with administrator Todd Ponder, teacher Kathleen Neighbors rounded up $3,000 in grants to get the program started. She teaches at-risk students life skills in the class, and enlisted them to build and maintain the project. 

Ponder plans to add more equipment to the system, with the idea of growing more vegetables and herbs in the gardens, which science classes will incorporate into units. 

Math students will weigh and measure the fish and track the weekly growth of plants, while English classes will create recipes and stories related to the garden.

Tortolita science teacher Gayle Sharrah said she uses the garden to teach kids about the scientific method and ecology. She said the garden is a valuable instructional tool. There are also larger lessons at play.

“It’s a little bit about showing methods and ways to grow food without using a lot of chemicals — environmentalism,” Ponder said. “We also want kids to have awareness of all the different methods of growing, not just foods, but growing any kind of plants that are out there and available to them. They’ll get hands-on experience of actually doing it.”

Neighbors said it pleased her to see the way her students embraced the project.

“It’s a very comfortable, personal, family kind of feeling,” she said. “The kids love it. It gets them excited.”

One such student is Nico Ketcham, 14.

“It helps you learn about the environment,” he said. “It teaches kids to take care of gardens and plants. It taught me a lot about how plants grow, and how to take care of a garden.”

Contact reporter Phil Villarreal at or 573-4130.