Upper students growing veggies, fish via aquaponics - Ocean City Sentinel: News

Upper students growing veggies, fish via aquaponics

By KRISTEN KELLEHER/Sentinel staff | Posted: Wednesday, December 4, 2019 10:57 am

PETERSBURG — Seventh-grade students are growing tomatoes and arugula and raising tilapia in a middle school classroom through an aquaponics project meant to teach them about sustainability and environmentalism. 

Aquaponics is “a combination of fish and plant production using aquaculture and hydroponics systems,” the USDA National Agricultural Library website stated. 

According to the University of Massachusetts Amherst Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment, hydroponics is a production method in which plants are not grown in soil but in a nutrient-rich solution. 

This growing method allows for greater plant density and higher yields and requires less water than growing plants in soil. 

Almost any crop can be grown hydroponically, according to the Center of Agriculture, Food and the Environment. 

Robyn LaTorre, who teaches STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education to Upper Township Middle School students, said her students did a Google Hangouts session with AeroFarms, a Newark-based company that uses aeroponic technology to grow produce. 

In an aeroponics system, plants are supported through a plastic cover into a closed tank and receive nutrients through a fine mist, according to the Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment. 

“The kids were like, ‘This is so cool. I didn’t know stuff like this happened,’ and that’s kind of where this came from,” LaTorre said.

The seventh-grade students started the aquaponics project this school year.  

In her STEM programming, LaTorre said she tries to focus on environmental STEM and talk to students about sustainability, environmental impact and renewability. 

In eighth-grade, students learn about aquaculture and visit a local farm to see oysters grown commercially and do an oyster dissection. 

Sixth-graders learn about the world and use Google Tour Builder to create a tour of different biomes, including explaining the animals that live there and the adaptations necessary. 

“I want the students to understand where things come from, how do they get to our tables and focus on sustainability. With all of this plant growth, you would need a large area for traditional agriculture, but with our aquaponics system, we’re able to grow a variety of things all in the same vertical area, essentially,” she said.   

LaTorre said it uses about 90 percent less water than traditional agriculture. 

In the summer, LaTorre and her colleague, Lee Winterbottom, put the system together from a kit, with materials including PVC pipes, UV lights, a fish tank, pumps and heaters.   

It operates on a closed-loop system. The tilapia eat an organic diet and their waste creates nitrates and nitrites in the water, which is pumped through the system. 

Currently, they are growing tomatoes, lettuce, arugula, beans and more. Everything they planted has a 75- to 90-day harvest period, LaTorre said. 

The plants act as a natural filter for the water. LaTorre adds chelated iron and magnesium to benefit the plants. This does not harm the tilapia, she said. 

The students start the plants on seed mats and then transfer them to the aquaponics system. 

Every day, students come in and check the plants, water the ones on the seed mat, check to see if any plants died or if plants need to be moved, check the food in the fish feeder and check the ammonia and pH levels in the water. 

Although the project had a few growing pains — LaTorre said the lettuce did not grow well, likely due to the warm water temperature needed for the tilapia — the project was “a lot easier than I thought,” she said. 

“I thought we were going to run into a lot of issues and a lot of trouble, but once the system kind of regulated itself, once the pH was in check and once the fish started adding good bacteria to the system, everything just kind of took off,” she said. 

To learn about the process, LaTorre received advice from Candace Ochs, a Corbin City representative on the Upper Township Board of Education who LaTorre said has a similar system in her home. LaTorre also used online resources.  

According to LaTorre, the project is a hit with students. 

“They really did like it. They were excited to see the growth rate. … It was definitely interesting and awesome to feel like we’re doing something the kids are into because I like to do things that get kids curious about the world and I think that this definitely helped,” she said. 

Seventh-grader Kelly Herrera said she was excited to see the fish and to see how the plants would grow and the system would work. 

Gabe Gillespie said it was “neat because we got to learn how to grow our own plants and how to take care of them.”

Madyn Rihl, a seventh-grader, said she thought the project was “very interactive” and she liked “how we were able to do something for the environment and grow the plants yourself.”

Rihl added that “looking at something on a website is different than seeing it in person and actually doing it yourself and noticing the outcome.”

“I think the best feeling is watching how much stuff grows and the plants, at first, it’s good to see how much they’ve grown and the fish, also every week we get to see their growth,” she said. 

All three students said they did not know much about aquaponics before they started the project in the fall.