CATAWISSA RR — Kristen Vitkauskas’ ecology students are enjoying a unique learning experience about ecosystems with the installation of an aquaponics system in their classroom at Southern Columbia Area High School.
Combining growing plants (hydroponics) and raising fish (aquaculture), aquaponics is a hands-on learning tool.
Vitkauskas said the system arrived in October and, through trial and error and a few water leaks, she and a group of students were able to get it operating.
A Merck Foundation’s Neighbor of Choice (NOC) community grant of $19,961 allowed the district to invest in the system along with two greenhouses, raised beds, fencing for an elementary garden, and seeds, small tools and materials for the garden’s construction.
A sustaining cycle
At the back of Vitkauskas’ classroom — past the cages of guinea pigs, rabbits, rats, a ferret and chinchillas — sits the aquaponics system, consisting of a 2,600-pound, 350-gallon tank filled with 100 tilapia, a water-pumping system and a large bed containing numerous plants.
Vitkauskas said bacteria, tilapia and the plants are the three living elements that sustain the system. Two forms of bacteria were introduced to the environment to help convert ammonia from fish waste into elements that help the plants grow, creating a sustaining cycle, she explained. Water from the tank is pushed into the growing area by air and then drains back into the tank.
In the spring students will work on projects in the outdoor gardens, and they have used the aquaponics system to begin growing their plants. Everything from lettuce and strawberries to tomatoes, peppers and onions are growing and will be ready to be transplanted into the gardens by spring.
Vitkauskas refers to the system as “the future of farming” due to its ability to grow large quantities of fruits and vegetables without the use of soil. Either from seedor sprout, the plants are growing from clay pebbles called leca stones, which she said are like lava rock.
In addition to teaching students project-based learning about ecosystems and agriculture, Vitkauskas said the aquaponics system is meant to provide a reward at the end of the school year.
“When the fish get big enough and the plants are grown, you’re supposed to have a meal,” she said.
Vitkauskas and the students had to start over several times in assembling the system before they got it right.
Senior Connor Fulmer said the hardest part was figuring out what it was supposed to look like by interpreting the instructions. He said he enjoyed getting to put it together and learn the mechanics of how it works.
It also allowed Fulmer and classmates Johnny Knisely and Mike Adamski, both juniors, to bond with foreign exchange student Max Yen, from Taiwan.
They said Yen was quiet at first, but opened up once he became involved in putting the system together. Through the process, he became more open and talkative and, Adamski said, “He was our best friend.”
The students are excited to have the system in their classroom, with Fulmer wondering what other school can say it has such an ecosystem in class.
Adamski added, “You have a garden in the classroom. You can’t say that every day.”
Senior Delilah Glessner, a co-op student, said she likes the system because instead of waiting to plant things outside, it can be done right in the classroom. She didn’t know a system like this existed until the school began the project.
Glessner helps take care of the vegetation by doing things such as clipping lettuce or putting in stands to hold up the tomatoes.
She said she loves the class because students are able to be hands-on with their education.