Salida Boys & Girls Club members participating in the Indoor Farming Innovation Zone aquaponics program get a virtual visit from NASA plant scientist Dr. Gioia Massa Friday. The club members are learning about aquaponics, including how the system might be used to feed astronauts fresh food in space.

Something fishy is going on at Salida Boys & Girls Club.

Thanks to a NASA-funded grant, club members are learning how aquaponics, a system that uses fish waste products as nutrients to grow plants without soil, can be used for indoor farming and even as a means of providing fresh food for astronauts in space.

The program came about when Boys & Girls Clubs of Pueblo County, in partnership with the “I Will” Projects, a Pueblo non-profit, was awarded a 2020-2021 NASA grant.  

With that grant, fifth through 12th grade club members in Pueblo as well as, clubs in Chaffee County, Fremont County, San Luis Valley and Pikes Peak Region have the opportunity to participate in the Indoor Farming Innovation Zone program, which was funded by a $175,000 grant from NASA to foster science, technology, engineering and math programs for youth.

The instruction for the activities is virtual, with a computer link up with Susan Finzel-Aldred, Indoor Farming Innovation Zone educational specialist, and live with direction from Boys & Girls Club of Chaffee County Salida branch director Kiki Lathrop and visits from Pueblo aquaponics expert Nate Miller.

Lathrop, a self-confessed STEM nerd, said “This program gives our girls and our boys, ages 9-16, a first hand look at what NASA is doing now and in the future. I couldn’t have asked for a more empowering program to provide to our members.”

Each participant gets real world experience with the concepts they are learning as they set up and care for their own aquaponic system consisting of a fish tank with a plant growing area on top. A pump circulates the water to keep plants watered and disperse nutrients from the fish tank.

The club also has a tank set up so that non participants can see what is happening.

In addition to learning the basics of a aquaponic system, the participants also get to hear from experts such as Dr. Gioia Massa, a plant scientist in NASA’s Veggie program which aims to grow plants in the International Space Station.

Massa spoke and answered Salida club members’ questions Friday via the internet, telling them more about how the system might be used  in space.

Nine-year-old Zaylynn Longoria Bragassa, a Salida club member participating in the project said, “I love that our NASA Aquaponics class makes learning so much fun. So far I’ve learned about the life cycle of fish and food and how germination works.  

Zaylynn said she wants to someday go to college for science.

Boys & Girls Clubs of Chaffee County Executive Director Brian Beaulieu said, “We are so grateful to NASA and our great friends at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Pueblo County for bringing this program to Chaffee County.  

“It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime, transformative, programs that could propel any number of our members into a career in STEM.”  

“I’m learning from our fish as well,” Beaulieu said.

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