Summer Youth Academy integrates American Indian teaching

Kyle Ericson, left, of Ishpeming, and Antoine Hayes, of Detroit, create a pH probe for an aquaponics project during the Reimagine STEM Summer Youth Academy. The academy took place at Northern Michigan University. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)

MARQUETTE — Should a peacock grouper or unicornfish be used in an aquaponics project?

That was a discussion that took place among several participants in a Tuesday session of the second Reimagine STEM Summer Youth Academy at Northern Michigan University. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

Students who have completed grades 10-12 learned how to approach science, technology, engineering and mathematics based on Native American traditions, knowledge and culture. Classes, which began Monday, included aquaponics, Anishinaabe language, sustainability@home, brain science, social psychology, cultural wellness and college, martial arts and introduction to Native studies.

Teaching the aquaponics sessions were James Davis and Bill Babbitt, both from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, based in Troy, New York.

“Aquaponics is when you create a symbiotic relationship between plants and fish,” Davis said. “So, the fish produce nitrogen. They poop in the water, and then the plants and microbes help clean the water back for the fish.”

The process actually is very practical, he said.

“People use it a fair amount for farming,” Davis said. “It’s had a pretty long history of that.”

For instance, he noted the ancient Mayans used aquaponics.

Babbitt weaved in a small history lesson, talking about colonization and decolonization.

Colonization, he noted, has two aspects — physical, or the taking over of the land — and mental.

“If you’re the invading force, what would you do?” Babbitt asked the students.

The answer was fairly simple: making the indigenous people feel “less than,” as he put it.

Babbitt also defined decolonization: “to take it back and to recognize that indigenous knowledge is valued and sophisticated.”

On a more practical matter, the students researched the creation of an aquaponics system for a community that might theoretically be used for food for a large number of people, Babbitt said.

After crafting the proposal, the students then were to create small-scale demonstration systems.

“You guys have all been tasked with exploring aquaponics as a possible method,” Davis told the youths.

To accomplish that, he said they’d have to consider what their community needs.

“You’re also going to need to think a lot about what your aquaponic system needs,” Davis said. “What materials are you going to need? What are going to be the inputs? What are going to be the outputs? How much space is required?”

The students then were to create posters, followed by their demonstration systems.

Davis told them it was “critical” to learn from people from many perspectives, three of which he considered particularly important for their projects to go well: engineering, biological and ecological. He also stressed it would be helpful to look at systems that already exist.

The students eventually were split into groups to take on their projects.

One group decided they wanted their aquaponics system to be in Hawaii, so they had to consider their budgets and the appropriate fish for their project. A peacock grouper? Invasive. A catfish? A bottom-feeder but picky with its pH requirements. A bluespine unicornfish? Possibly — plus, according to one youth, it had a cute name.

On Wednesday, the participants began to build their demonstration projects, with real suckers to be added Thursday.

However, their “proposal fish” differed from their “demonstration fish.”

For example, the group creating an aquaponics site for Cornell, a small community in Delta County, chose tilapia for its project.

The group also had to perform a little math. With a population of 600 people — 300 adults subsisting on 2,000 calories per day and 300 kids needing 1,500 calories a day — it was estimated, considering the calories associated with tilapia, lettuce and chives, that the site would provide a quarter of Cornell’s daily caloric needs.

The students who created the fictional town of Yeahboigan, Hawaii, decided to use the bluespine unicornfish, with their system accounting for a third of the town’s caloric intake.

The Center for Native American Studies and the NMU Diversity and Inclusion Office co-sponsored the event, which included time spent at Camp Nesbitt in Sidnaw. Participants also attended for free and earned college credit.

The goals of the academy were to address the lack of inclusivity of American Indian teaching methods within science education curricula and the low numbers of American Indian and Alaskan Native female students graduating from four-year universities, particularly in the STEM fields.

Martin Reinhardt, an assistant professor of Native American Studies at NMU, watched part of Tuesday’s aquaponics session.

“You look at it historically — the relationship between humans and water. Indigenous populations worldwide have usually lived at the coastlines or along rivers and streams,” Reinhardt said.

Thus, American Indians knew how to extract the sludge from the water and grow plants in it, and develop irrigation systems.

Participants came from as far away as Arizona, said Reinhardt, who added that the National Science Foundation provided a grant for the academy.

He reiterated that STEM was a major focus.

“We were hoping that students will find an interest in the area and pursue college careers in one of the STEM fields,” Reinhardt said.

The target group in the academy was American Indian females, although registration wasn’t limited to that demographic.

“We certainly hope to attract American Indian females because they’re just so few,” Reinhardt said.

That could be said of American females in general when it comes to STEM careers.

Reinhardt acknowledged that situation, pointing out that those careers typically have been male-dominated.

“Even for the females that do end up going into those professions that are male-dominated, they are still up against all the sexism, and then you throw minorities in that, and then you got racism on top of that,” Reinhardt said.

However, he’s hopeful about their future, counting the number of females in the aquaponics session.

“Just in this little group here, there are eight females,” he said.

Alisyn Henderson, 17, of Tuba City, Arizona, has enjoyed learning while attending the academy, plus it works into her career plans.

“I want to work with medicine,” Henderson said. “It will help me a lot.”

The groups, though, were diverse.

Kyle Ericson, 16, of Ishpeming, and Antoine Hayes, 17, of Detroit, partnered Wednesday morning to create a probe for measuring the water’s pH. Of course, that was just part of the STEM Summer Youth Academy.

“For me, it was really what aquaponics was,” Ericson said. “Obviously, I knew what hydroponics was just from being around, knowing, but actually combining the fish and living organisms working together to create a symbiotic relationship — finding that balance is really interesting to me.”

For Hayes, it was pretty much the same thing.

“I had a very vague idea of what aquaponics was before the class, but after doing a lot of research, we figured out more about it and how the relationship actually works and how the fish and the plants actually work together to help create food,” Hayes said.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is