How one teacher's aquarium dream made science at this Texas school 10 times cooler.

He found a beautiful way to make his school a better place to learn.

What do you do if you're an awesome science teacher and you want your kids to learn about water animals but don't have water nearby?

That's what James Jubran was up against as an aquatic science teacher at Alief Elsik High School in Houston, Texas.

"We don’t have the ability to go to lakes, rivers, oceans or streams," Jubran explains. The nearest large body of water is Trinity Bay, which is an hour away. Big field trips like that cost money, and the school doesn't have the funding to make them feasible.


Elsik is far from being the only school with this problem. Schools nationwide are dealing with massive budget cuts to their STEM programs (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). That's a big obstacle for students looking to have careers in any of these fields.

Thankfully aquatic science enthusiasts at Elsik have Jubran — grant writer extraordinaire.

Jubran with some of his students. All photos via Elsik High School, used with permission.

Jubran grew up in Florida surrounded by the ocean, and he was always fascinated by underwater ecosystems. He often went out on boats with his family, and he never missed an opportunity to go snorkeling or scuba diving.

He became a science teacher in Florida 10 years ago, but due to statewide school budget cuts, he lost his job and decided to move inland to Houston, Texas, in 2006. He's been at Elsik for five years but has always felt somewhat limited by the lack of access to water.

So in 2016, he wrote a grant proposal for State Farm's Neighborhood Assist Program asking for help in building a gigantic aquarium for Elsik students as well as students at other nearby schools.

State Farm accepted the first 2,000 applicants for the grant, and narrowed that number down to 200. Those proposals were then made public so that people could vote on their favorites. Elsik students made it their mission to vote as much as possible.

The top 40 proposals received $25,000. The grant Jubran wrote came in at #8.

State Farm grant dispatchers and members of the school board.

Jubran immediately began pulling resources to build his dream aquarium, and within a couple months, it was finished.

The aquarium is 12 feet long, 9 feet tall, and 3 feet wide and can hold 1,100 gallons of water.

He decided to create a tropical ecosystem in the tank, home to all kinds of tropical fish. The aquatic residents were added slowly to the tank in order to build up good bacteria, which allows the tank to better handle fish waste. The slow process also helps make sure the fish all get along.

Today, there are 14 different species of fish living in the tank. They include threadfin geophagus, known for their digging skills, Silver arowana, which can grow to two feet long, carnivorous tiger oscars, shovelnose catfish, which look like their name sounds, and Redhooks — the vegetarian version of piranhas.

A few redhooks in Elsik's new aquarium.

The tank is located in the school cafeteria so that all of the students can enjoy it and, well, because it was too big to put upstairs near Jubran's classroom.

The aquarium's been in place for two months now, and everyone seems to love it and all its colorful inhabitants.

Threadfin geophaguses hanging out together.

Students are often seen pressed up against the glass watching the fish swim around and interact with one another.

Jubran doesn't love the thousands of fingerprints on the glass, but he appreciates the enthusiasm. He even has kids he's never met before coming up to him saying things like, “oh, are you the guy who built the aquarium? It’s so cool."

I don't know about that guy in the middle. He looks pretty fishy to me. HEYO!

And Jubran's students, especially the ones interested in aquatic science careers, can't get enough. Even though it's the end of the school year, he's begun assigning special teaching projects on species in the aquarium.

"Next year, students will learn everything they need to know about the fish, then develop and present a curriculum focused on the aquarium," Jubran says. That way, when students from other schools come by to check out the aquarium, Elsik students can actually teach them about what's going on inside it.

And Jubran is not finished with his plans to bring water to Elsik — he's got even loftier plans up his sleeve.

Jubran teaching his students about the aquarium.

"I'm going for a $100,000 grant next year to build an even larger salt water aquarium for the other side of the school," Jubran says.

It might be four times as much as the previous grant, but considering his success at getting that, there's a very good chance he'll be filling a larger aquarium with more exotic fish soon enough.

Jubran's initiative just goes to show there's enormous power behind one person's desire to make a difference.

You don't have to have a ton of money or a fancy upbringing to make huge waves in your community. All you need to have is an idea and the tenacity to see it through.

One teacher can make a school a better, cooler place to learn and grow. As long as Jubran's at Elsik, he'll be working on exciting ways to do just that.

If you want to find out more about Neighborhood Assist, and how it's helping improve communities across the country, check out the program here.    

This post was updated 7/11/2017.

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