Warren County Career Center students are skipping the soil and using fish waste to grow vegetables.
The high school juniors and seniors in Karl Flem’s biotechnology and environmental science classes have constructed and are maintaining an aquaponics system.
Aquaponics is a technique for sustainable food production that utilizes the combination of aquaculture with hydroponics to grow fish and vegetables without soil. The process begins with fish producing waste, which is then pumped through a bio-filter to convert into fertilizer for the plants. Plants use nutrients from that water, and the freshly oxygenated water is returned to the fish tank. By recirculating the water from the fish tank to the grow bed, the need for water is greatly reduced compared to traditional irrigation.
Flem said he decided to incorporate an aquaponics project after participating in The Ohio State University’s Intermediate Aquaculture Boot Camp (ABC). The Ohio Center for Aquaculture Research and Development at OSU received an award from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to develop a program for training new and beginning aquaculture farmers.
According to Flem, the classroom project aligns with several state standards.
“This is all related to STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — that the state of Ohio is putting emphasis on now for our classrooms,” he said. “The state has also added a fifth component of entrepreneurship.”
His classes partnered with Landscape Technology students and their instructor Delohn Collins to build an aquaponics system, which uses hydroponic growing of organic lettuce with aquaculture raising of fish.
Along with figuring out the engineering aspects of water circulation, which included water filtration and aeration systems, and the hydroponic pipes that grow the lettuce and cycle the water through the fish tank, students are developing a business plan for sales and marketing of a hypothetical business.
The project uses a small tank with five bluegills and a smaller tank holding several goldfish. The water cycles from those tanks through four 10-foot sections of 8-inch PVC pipes to keep the lettuce plants watered and fed. The students also are experimenting with growing shitake mushrooms.
Flem said the project has become cross-curricular as students apply lessons with their career-technical programs.
For example, Matthew Dailey, a Lebanon junior in Digital Design, has developed a website to document the project. Culinary junior Matt Minor, also from Lebanon, is planning ways to use the organic farming products in his kitchen lab. Claudia Navarro, a Legal Office Technology senior from Waynesville, is getting experience in business with planning cost and marketing.
“The students are learning so many aspects of biotechnology and environmental science, and they love coming to class every day and working on this project,” Flem said. “It holds their interest, and they don’t want to leave when the bell rings.”