Pair of Waukon High School graduates involved in Wartburg Ioponics selected to educate youth through Iowa STEM Scale-Up Program

Educating with Ioponics ... A pair of Waukon High School graduates will be helping to educate students across Iowa as part of the Wartburg College Ioponics program that received the Iowa STEM Scale-Up Program Grant. Pictured above, left to right, Waukon High School 2019 graduate and current Wartburg College sophomore Michaela Dehli and 1989 Waukon High School graduate and current Assistant Professor in Science Education in Wartburg’s Biology Department Dr. Michael Bechtel are part of a team that will be helping to educate Iowa students through the Wartburg Ioponics program, part of which is pictured with the two area natives. Submitted photo.

The 75-gallon model ... Waukon High School graduates Michaela Dehli (2019) and Dr. Michael Bechtel (1989) are part of the Wartburg College Ioponics program that was recently selected by the Iowa Governor’s STEM Council to educate students across Iowa during the 2021-2022 academic year. Pictured above is the 75-gallon Ioponics model, one of several models developed by the Wartburg team for classroom use. Submitted photo.

Wartburg College Ioponics was one of 12 programs recently selected to participate in the Iowa STEM Scale-Up Program Grant for the 2021-2022 academic year. This grant provides Iowa classrooms with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) educational opportunities including classroom lessons, complete system equipment, professional development, and living plants/animals.

Waukon natives Dr. Michael Bechtel and Michaela Dehli are excited to be a part of this journey for classrooms across the state. Dr. Bechtel is a 1989 graduate of Waukon High School and is an Associate Professor of Science Education in the Biology Department at Wartburg College in Waverly. Dehli is a 2019 graduate of Waukon High School and is currently in her sophomore year at Wartburg College as an Elementary Education major with Math, Science and Reading endorsements.

The concept of classroom aquaponics was first developed in 2014 and since has grown exponentially. Several undergraduate campus research grants and the Iowa Science Foundation (Iowa Academy of Science) have supported the advancement of Ioponics.

For this grant selection process, Wartburg Ioponics submitted information regarding the evidence from the last seven years of research and system placements. Some of the descriptors included effective reach to diverse learners, positive community and institution impact, cost benefit projections, long-term system sustainability, alignment to the Iowa Core and more.

The STEM Scale-Up  Program provides STEM educational opportunities to approximately one-fifth  of Iowa students each year, bringing some of the nation’s best STEM lessons, labs, kits, software and professional  development to PreK-12 students and educators in-school, afterschool and other educational settings, especially  targeting those most in need. The Wartburg Ioponics Program was one of 12 programs from across the nation selected for the 2021-2022  academic year to be offered to preK-12 educators across Iowa.

“We cast a net across the country for top STEM programs and this year reeled in over 100 proposals - the most ever,”  said Jeff Weld, executive director of the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council. “The Council’s intent in designing this  program eight years ago was to assure that every young Iowan finish second to no one when it comes to STEM  education, and with the 12 selected Scale-Up programs debuting January 11, we fulfill their intent.”

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 idea of aquaponics has been around for centuries, and Wartburg Ioponics is taking this opportunity to make it accessible to students of all ages.

The process involves a hands-on, minds-on, researchable process of raising aquatic animals and plants in a controlled micro-ecosystem within the school walls. NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards) and AFNR (Agriculture Food and Natural Resources) Standards were the basis for the educational material. The system is coupled with cross-curricular lessons and ancillaries for the pre-Kindergarten through fourth grade, fifth through eighth grade, and ninth through 12th grade levels.

During the research process, three systems (micro – two-gallon, tabletop – 30-gallon, and floor – 75-gallon) were constructed for individual classroom use in pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade academic institutions. In 2018, systems were built and placed in Iowa classrooms in Cedar Falls, Waterloo and Waverly. Additional schools in Iowa, including Postville, Waterloo Christian and Denver, were added in 2019. Van Meter, Ankeny, Grinnell, Anamosa, Marcus and Janesville each have Ioponics systems in 2020.

The animals in the aquaponics units have consisted of tilapia, catfish, goldfish, prawns and freshwater lobster. The exemplary plants are lettuce, basil, tomatoes, peppers, strawberries and wolfberries. Further research is taking place currently on sustainable substitutes for flora and fauna. Ideally, flora and fauna within the system will be locale specific depending on the final placement, state-wide and nationally.

Currently, there is a team of four Wartburg College pre-service educators, Sadie Short (Class of 2021 from Dodge Center, MN), Becca Montgomery (Class of 2022 from White Bear Lake, MN), Sidney Baumgartner (Class of 2022 from Le Mars) and Michaela Dehli (Class of 2023 from Waukon) that work alongside Dr. Michael Bechtel and Mr. Eric Berns to continue creating, developing and implementing additional Ioponics systems and materials. Brainstorming has been done with Dan Bechtel of Waukon, Derek Happel of Waverly and Travis Angell of Waverly) to problem solve the systems. The Wartburg team is currently working with Chad Wilkins from Rotocast Plastics in Decorah to create a die to update its aquaponics model.

This team has curated information that has been shared at many state, national and international educational conferences throughout the years. Those events include, but are not limited to, STEM Day at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, National Science Teaching Association Conference in St. Louis, Chicago and Minneapolis, National Agriculture in the Classroom in Little Rock, Salt Lake City and Des Moines, and Hawaii International Conference on Education in Honolulu.

“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,” Dr. Bechtel said.

To find out more information about Ioponics, visit Anyone who would like to request a system in their classroom is encourage to visit

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