In a button-up shirt and slacks, Santa Fe Prep student Benjamin Becker is noticeably well dressed for a seventh grader. He meets SFR outside his home in the hills southeast of the city and takes us around back, where a small greenhouse sits against a steep slope.
Inside, a tray of herbs, chard, lettuce and strawberry plants nestled in gravel sits perched above a 330-gallon tank, the roots dangling in the water. A school of 25 baby tilapia flit eagerly to the surface and then disappear as Becker tosses them a handful of fish food.
The fish in the tank produce nitrogen-rich waste, which acts as natural fertilizer for the plants, says Becker, plucking a bright red strawberry from its stem. The plants, in turn, oxygenate and purify the water, keeping the fish healthy.
This fully-functional aquaponics set-up marks the fulfillment of a dream Becker’s harbored since he was just 9 years old.
Earlier this month, Becker won a $1,000 grand prize in the Climate Innovation Challenge for a short video explaining how aquaponics could help protect food security and farmers’ livelihoods in the drought-stricken Southwest as the climate climbs hotter and drier.
“I wanted to make an aquaponics system since long before the Climate Innovation Challenge,” says Becker, “but the challenge really just gave me the motivation and the drive to do it now.”
The Climate Innovation Challenge is an annual competition hosted by CAVU, a local nonprofit that explores environmental issues in New Mexico through film and other media. Students must submit a video project about a solution that could help their community handle the impacts of climate change.
In his video, Becker explains aquaponics is a closed-loop method of growing food without soil that uses 90% less water than traditional farming while producing eight times more food, all without the use of artificial pesticides or fertilizers.
“It’s like having a quarter acre and putting it in a shipping container and growing the same amount of food,” says an expert Becker interviews in the film.
The Climate Innovation Challenge is only in its second year, but interest in the program seems to be growing.
Last year, students from around the state submitted 42 videos and presentations. This year, the competition received 155 submissions. CAVU educator Phil Lucero plans to expand the competition to include other states in 2022.
Lucero says that, despite the challenges of remote learning, the pandemic may have given the program a boost.
“Adaption is the theme of our challenge, but it’s also what our students and teachers have been doing this year,” says Lucero. “Teachers are having to figure it out on the fly and they’re having to adapt. And so we’re kind of playing off that in regard to thinking about climate adaptation.”
The challenge is part of a full curriculum delving in to climate change and solutions. It’s designed for teachers to use in their classrooms or parents to use at home, and also includes lessons about videography and visual storytelling to help prepare students to participate in the Climate Innovation Challenge.
While students are encouraged to participate in the full program, it is not a requirement to submit a video for the challenge.
The curriculum covers mitigation strategies to prevent climate change—such as reducing one’s carbon footprint—and adaptation strategies for dealing with the damage already done.
Lucero says the program encourages students to think forward and backward, pushing for solutions , such as planting mangrove forests in coastal areas—a species that absorbs carbon from the atmosphere while acting as a barrier to slow down storm surges.
The Climate Innovation Challenge portion of the program focuses on adaptation because it’s not a topic that is generally covered in schools, even those that do teach about climate change more generally.
Lucero says he thinks that’s partly because discussion with kids about adaptation can be thorny.
“When you think about adapting, that means you’re admitting to the fact that it is going to get worse,” says Lucero. Facing that reality can be scary.
But Lucero says he worries more about kids who’ve been extremely isolated during the pandemic seeing nothing but doomsday headlines when it comes to climate change.
“I think kids need to get their hands dirty,” he continues. “If you’re taking action, if you’re part of the solution, then you’re also going to have hope, especially if you have a community approach to tackling these problems that are coming our way. So then you are not facing it alone.”
“What I’m worried about is students receding away from these communities on screens where they’re reading the news and potentially succumbing to fear-based messaging,” says Lucero.
He says CAVU hopes to help kids discover a sense of agency instead of hopelessness.
“I’m hoping that this program can help students realize their potential to be a part of the solution.”