Students with disabilities thrive in aquaponics program
By Liza Mayer
As former professor of physical and health education at Pennsylvania’s Slippery Rock University, Robert Arnhold trained people with disabilities and helped them navigate the challenges of transitioning between high school and college or the workforce.
When he discovered aquaponics two years ago, he knew it would be ideal as a vocational program for students with intellectual or developmental disabilities. In February 2018, he launched the Growing Together Aquaponics program.
Students from over 10 school districts in the state tend the program’s aquaponics garden housed at the North Country Brewing Company’s canning facility in Slippery Rock. They grow broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, rosemary and microgreens, and sell them to the North Country Brew Pub and other local restaurants. They also grow tilapia and koi.
The program has various levels that cater to the students’ needs. “We work with a lot of different sensory needs,” says Arnhold. “You can address the sensory need that they have and avoid the sensory overload. There’s sight, sound, smell, taste and touch involved. You can avoid what is overwhelming to them and increase what they need.”
“Some of our students don’t really want to be near the fish, but they really like the plants or vice versa,” adds operations manager Marena Toth. “There’s just so many different types of components and tasks and criteria that people can do all the way down.”
Students who participate in the program are provided the opportunity to teach classes on the aspects of the system that they learned. They can also avail of the services of the university’s Rock Life program, which provides participants a path to employment and wellness.
One of the students is Zoe. “Working here gave me social skills, teamwork skills, leadership skills and communication skills,” she says. “I enjoy harvesting what we’ve grown and sending it off to the restaurants to be used in different ways. When I go to the restaurants, I like seeing the comments on the menu about which dish has produce from the system.”