Jed Hamberger, Academic Director
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The nature of this innovation lends itself to scalable implementation outside of the power grid. Students considered food insecurity and were challenged to develop a way to make this system self-sustainable through the integration of solar energy. In remote areas of the world, the ability to produce food through an off-grid power source could positively impact food insecurity issues.
What is an Aquaponics System?
The INTAG Aquaponics unit has a fish tank, which feeds the water into the clarifier that collects the fist waste produced by the Tilapia. Then the fish waste is pumped into the media bed. The media bed is a large bed filled with river rock and red-worms, which break the ammonia down into nitrites and nitrates which is the nutrients the plants need to grow. Water then flows to the float bed which is where there are more plants planted in rock wool inserts in a floating Styrofoam bed. The roots grow down into the water and the plants grow above the Styrofoam float bed. The plants balance out the chemical makeup of the water to be able to provide the correct chemical balance for the tilapia. Once the water flows through the float bed, the water is pumped back to the fish tank and the process starts all over again. There is also an aeration system throughout all parts of the Aquaponics system other than the clarifier. This provides the plants and fish the oxygen levels in the water that are needed for productive growth.
Educationally, we use this system across the board for multiple classes and age levels of students. In the High School we have two sections of Aquaponics classes that run the day-to-day operations of the system as well as educate young students from the elementary school. Our Engineering course is a group of students who design upgrades to our Aquaponics system. These students also designed and fabricated their own Aquaponics system. Our computer Science courses are working with Raspberry Pi technology to create monitoring systems that collect the data into Google Forms to be able to track the data and use this data to make improvements on the growth production of the plants in the system. Our elementary art classes have also been incorporated to the system; as we bring students over to learn about the aquaponics system they then return to their art projects for a few weeks based on what they learned during their visit to the Aquaponics lab. Then their project is added to a mural in between the elementary and junior-senior high school to represent what they have learned about the aquaponics system.
All content is based on grade level science standards as well as STEM standards from PDE. The Aquaponics consortium was developed by the IU1 to combine multiple school districts so that a large non-profit organization would to be able to fund the education of students from a much broader area than if they would simply fund one school. This collaboration across districts brings diversity from a span of demographics, ranging from extremely rural schools like West Greene to inner-city school districts.
While our students are focusing on real-world STEM issues, they develop valuable problem-solving 21st Century skills to prepare them to make a difference in the world that awaits them upon graduation.
Students are responsible for monitoring and maintaining our multiple aquaponics systems. They have designed and fabricated our systems, and they must conduct all troubleshooting and repairs that arise. Additionally, our students have developed all standard operating procedures for our systems to ensure their smooth and uninterrupted function. High school students research, design, and teach the lessons to the elementary school students in a cross-curricular approach to STEM education.
Phase 1: Exploration of Feasibility
- Students designed and fabricated their own medium-sized aquaponics system to explore their ability to overcome design hurdles and installation setbacks. In addition to functioning as an implementation test, it served to test the available infrastructure to meet plumbing and electrical requirements and determine scalability for expansion.
Phase 2: Production
- A larger prefabricated system was installed to scale production without concentrating on design hurdles. This systems allows students to change factors that affect system output over system function.
Phase 3: Expansion and Reproduction
- The third phase includes a small aquaponic system for breeding of tilapia offspring. A germination station was added to allow uniform seed development. Vertical systems will allow plants more time to mature before entering the float beds in order to decrease mortality.
Purposeful, Cross-Curricular Collaboration:
- Students from multiple courses have been involved in the development, maintenance, and day-to-day functioning of the aquaponics systems. Our aquaponics students collaborate with our engineering and programming students to design and fabricate changes, upgrades, and new components for the existing aquaponics systems.
- Our aquaponics systems provide Junior-Senior High School students (grades 7-12) with experiential learning that is not achievable from a textbook. Aquaponics students design and teach science lessons to elementary students (grades K-6), resulting in a truly district-wide collaboration. Aquaponics courses are open to students regardless of ability level, which results in a heterogeneous blend of students empowered to work together to be successful.
Technical skill development:
- Students develop transferable technical skills such as design, fabrication, testing, and troubleshooting. Students develop technical writing skills in designing clear procedural guidelines for the systems. Additionally, students have to design systems to fit available infrastructure while striving to maximize produce production. The program also highlights alternative agricultural practices, aquaculture, and renewable energy sources.
- Students are given immersive education, where they face new challenges on a regular basis. Students design standard operating procedures that push them to optimize system outputs. Aquaponics students create inquiry-based activities to engage elementary students, based on their own inquiry-based learning experiences. Ultimately, our end result is a group of engaged students who can take what they have learned and teach others.
Educators collaborate within our district and with other districts to establish working systems. Teachers in the district from other disciplines, such as ELA, are engaged in the developmental and grant writing processes, resulting in a true cross-curricular investment in the program.
The aquaponics program is featured on our district media. During open house, students showcase their learning for visitors. Professors and graduate students from nearby universities collaborate with our students to provide context for how aquaponics relates to such diverse fields as oceanography and public health. One state university purchased fish from our aquaponics system to supplement their own system.
Although the initial investment costs were significant, funding was secured through grant writing. Once the system is fully functional, minimal funding for system maintenance and supplies is required. Expansion has been grant-based through projects designed to incorporate PV solar panels and vertical systems.
After the initial investment, minimal sustained funding is required to keep the programing running. Fish breeding is used to maintain fish population levels. Food is purchased yearly but can be supplemented with excess crops. Plants are started from seed in germination stations with high germination rates that reduce cost and prevent purchase of adult plants. Solar PV Panels have been added to offset the amount of electricity required to run the system. The consortium of aquaponic schools provides a network for sharing fish, worms, and technical expertise when needed.
While students may have a specific area of interest in the aquaponics system, they are required to cross-train in a variety of skills, such as water testing, feeding, cleaning, planting, harvesting, and system maintenance. This ensures that students have a vast understanding of the system and that absenteeism has minimal impact on the system’s performance.
To date, we have completed two years of district-wide educational outreach. Students are empowered to train classmates on the current aquaponics systems and develop new systems together. Students design meaningful lessons and activities to engage elementary students and build on prior student-taught lessons in aquaponics.
The project was designed from the beginning to be scalable and has grown each year since its implementation. The first system was established to test feasibility and infrastructure demands was successful and led to the second production system. Students identified needs from this production system, leading to a separate fish breeding system, germination station, and vertical beds. Students from engineering and programming courses have worked together to integrated solar power and system automation and monitoring.
Final Thoughts: The incorporation of aquaponics systems has revolutionized STEM education in the West Greene School District and has fostered students capable of identifying and addressing the changing needs of the 21st Century world.