Ioponics making a splash at Wartburg

For several years, Associate Professor of Science Education Michael D. Bechtel has worked with several Wartburg student groups to bring plants and animals into the classroom in a very special way.

Classroom aquaponics, specifically named Ioponics, is the combination of aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (growing plants without soil) in an integrated system using aerobic bacteria that transforms fish waste (NO21-) into nutrients (NO31-) for plants. The process involves a hands-on, researchable process of raising aquatic animals and plants in a controlled micro-ecosystem within school walls. The system is coupled with cross-curricular units and ancillaries for the pK-3, 4-8, and 9-12 grade levels.

Several Wartburg research groups have worked or are working on different aspects (dynamics, husbandry, lesson plans, etc.) of the aquaponics systems with Bechtel and Eric Berns, biology laboratory coordinator. Ryan Henkel ’17 began the campus aquaponics systems in 2015 which was relayed in 2017 to Zack Pogorzelski ’19, Noah Solheim ’21, Candace Baker ’18, and Angelina Carrasquillo ’15 then to Becca Montgomery ’22, Sidney Baumgartner ’22, and Sadie Short ’21 in 2019. Michaela Dehli ’23 joined the program in 2020. 

Rough schematics of the systems were drafted by Jean Hakizimana ’20 in a CAD program. Two college engineering teams created a 3-D printed, WiFi-enhanced, automatic feeder (Morgan Neuendorf ’17Madison Thomas ’17, Jay Tegge ’17, and Jeremy Ellerby ’17) and a fecal cleaning system (Cal Tauber ’17Dillon DeMott ’17Riley Anderson ’17, and Erica Countryman ’17). Elementary Science Methods (SCI 385) and Secondary Science Methods (BI/CH/PHY 470) students created, and continue to create, lesson plans to be vetted by cooperating schools. Teacher Travis Angell’s Waverly-Shell Rock Middle School classroom and resident Derek Happel’s maintenance building have both benefitted from the systems designed by Wartburg students.

During the research process, three systems (micro – 2 gallon, tabletop – 30-gallon, and floor – 75-gallon) were constructed for better use in pK-12 academic institutions. In 2018, systems were built for classrooms in Marshfield, Wis.; La Crosse, Wis.; Waverly; and Cedar Falls. In 2019, additional schools in Iowa (Postville, Waterloo Christian, and Denver) were added. The animals in the aquaponics units have consistently consisted of tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus), catfish (Ictalurus punctatus), goldfish (Carassius auratus), prawns (Macrobrachium rosenbergii), and freshwater lobster (Cherax quadricarinatus). The exemplary plants are lettuce (Lactuca sativa), basil (Ocimum citriodorum), tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum), peppers (Capsicum annuum), strawberries (Fragaria sp.), and wolf berries (Lycium barbarum). Further research is taking place on sustainable substitutes for flora and fauna, especially locale specific, which depend on final aquaponics placement.

The accompanying lesson plans meet the seven NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards) crosscutting concepts and the eight AFNR (Agriculture Food and Natural Resources) pathways with appropriate cross-discipline concepts (English, mathematics, social science, etc.).

 “Our team has worked hard over the last couple of years to make this project a reality, and we are very excited to show everyone how an aquaponics system can be instrumental in science education,” Bechtel said.


  • Pre-Service STEM Conference in Iowa City, Nov. 7, 2016
  • Pre-Service STEM Conference in Iowa City, March 4, 2018
  • STEM Day at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Aug. 19, 2018
  • NSTA (National Science Teaching Association) in St. Louis, Missouri, April 12, 2019
  • NAITC (National Agriculture in the Classroom) in Little Rock, Ark., June 19, 2019
  • STEM Day at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Aug. 18, 2019
  • IAS (Iowa Academy of Science) in Ankeny, Oct. 7, 2019
  • HICE (Hawaii International Conference on Education) in Honolulu, Hawaii, Jan. 4-6, 2020
  • NAITC in Salt Lake City, June 23-26, 2020 (accepted)
  • NSTA in Chicago, April 8-11, 2021 (pending)
  • NAITC in Des Moines, June 28-July 1, 2021 (pending)
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds visits with Wartburg students and Dr. Michael Bechtel at the Iowa State Fair.