Hats Off to a Remarkable Teacher

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– Emily Stratton

10-13_REFLECTIONSWhen Donna Gradel became a teacher, she probably never dreamed where that life would take her. An environmental science teacher at Broken Arrow High School, Donna was part of a church mission trip several years ago to Kenya, where she saw the critical need for high-protein food in the small Kenyan villages. That trip lit a fire within her as a teacher and scientist.

Later when she and a colleague, Cindy Gharibvand, learned about an educational grant program, they leapt at the opportunity to apply. Receiving that grant was the beginning of a remarkable journey. They traveled to a remote area of Kenya where they laid the foundation for a humanitarian learning project to provide high protein food for the villagers. Returning to their school, their mission was for their students to build aquaponic units—sustainable food production systems that cultivate plants and raise fish. After five months of testing and hard work by the students, the most successful model was selected to build in Kenya the following summer. With fundraising support from the Broken Arrow community, Donna and Cindy, along with five of their students, returned the next summer and built a large-scale aquaponics system at a Kenya orphanage—much to the compliments of Kenyan government officials. A few months later, the orphans were eating tilapia from the fish pond. However, Donna’s journey does not stop there.

Later, when Donna spoke to one of the co-founders of the orphanage, she learned that they were having a problem with the cost of the fish food. In Kenya, fish food is actually two and a half times more expensive than it is here in the U.S. and, since the local community has an average income of less than a $1 a day, it was virtually unaffordable and not sustainable for a long period of time to keep the fish fed.

When Donna heard that, she knew her students had their challenge for the next school year. They would figure out how to make low-cost, sustainable fish food so the aquaponics systems could remain up and running. Students started brainstorming after school, knowing they had to come up with a formula that would utilize all indigenous ingredients, meal worms and even waste products. Then the next amazing part of their journey occurred.

They won a $10,000 Lemelson-MIT Foundation grant to help develop their fish-food project and then were invited to present their results this summer in Boston. What an experience for high school students to showcase something they had created and designed—something that has the potential to impact those less fortunate on the other side of the world—and to present it to a brilliant university community.

After a very successful student presentation in Boston, Donna and Cindy returned to Kenya this summer—through a second professional development grant—and laid the groundwork for the next phase of their student project. Plans are now under way for the teachers and their student inventors to return to Kenya in summer 2016 to install the fish food system for the tilapia, ultimately providing the orphans and the surrounding community with the protein they need. Amazing! And all from the dedicated work of high school students and their teachers.

Most likely, Donna’s journey will not end once the new system is in place next summer. Who knows what remarkable educational experiences she will undertake with future students. How lucky those students will be—and how proud we are to have such teachers right here in Oklahoma!

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