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OJO AMARILLO — A sixth grade class at Ojo Amarillo Elementary School has been named a state finalist for the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Contest.

The 24 students and their teacher, Adriane Jopek, hope their project focusing on aquaponics is selected to proceed in the next phase of the competition designed to boost middle and high school students' interest and skills in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

The College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at New Mexico State University describes aquaponics as a method of food production that combines the cultivation of aquatic animals in tanks and the growing of plants in water.

In most systems, fish and plants are cultivated together in a recirculating ecosystem where the fish waste provides nutrients for the plants and the plants help clean water for the fish.

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Several websites state that this method can grow large amounts of food by using a fraction of water used by soil-based agriculture.

Jopek said she was drawn to aquaponics after learning about the method during a conference she attended in the summer.

With the desert climate and access to water limited on the Navajo Nation, she said the project will show students another method for crop development and sustainability in the changing environment.

"I tell them that it'll be up to them because it's their future," Jopek said.

Student Raquel Tsosie is leading one of the groups in the class.

"I thought it was a good idea to do it because outside, we don't have good soil. And we get to learn more about how to make our environment better," Tsosie said.

The students were notified on Nov. 14 that the class was named a state finalist and had won a tablet for the classroom.

The other finalists in New Mexico are Capitan High School, Mescalero Apache High School, Santa Teresa High School and Taos Academy.

On Dec. 23, the 100 state winner schools will be named and will advance in the contest.

The prize in that round of the competition is $15,000 in technology and supplies and a video kit to help showcase their project, according to the competition.

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If the class is selected, it will use the amount to purchase the resources needed to build several aquaponic systems.

Students Radford Ashley Jr. and Harrison Begay described the honor as unique because their school is small.

"I think it's pretty cool because there's so many schools in the state and we got picked to be one of the five finalists to be in this competition," Ashley said.

Begay added the project provides an opportunity for the class to work together.

While they wait for the results, they are preparing to enter the Climate Innovation Challenge, a statewide contest for elementary, middle and high school students that focuses on climate adaptation ideas and projects.

That competition takes place in January at The Bosque School in Albuquerque.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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