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AQ 3

Did you know that State High has its own greenhouse? The state-of-the-art facility is home to the Aquaponics Club, an exciting new opportunity for students that is led by teacher Jack Lyke. Aquaponics refers to aquacultural systems that utilize waste produced by farmed fish. Plants are grown using nutrients from the fish and help to purify the water, which benefits the fish in turn.

After school on Mondays and Wednesdays, students in the club can be found hard at work cleaning and setting up fish tanks, installing piping, working on plumbing and perfecting the water systems, all in preparation to raise their own fish and plants.

Turning Thought into Action

After months of hard work, the lab is starting to come together. “We’re stopping leaks, and we’re draining water, fixing stuff and putting water back in them,” Lyke says. “I think the excitement is in what will eventually come from these great operational systems. We will come in and see fish and plants growing.”

With the tilapia fish scheduled to arrive soon, 15 club members are actively working on the last pieces of construction. Tilapia are resilient to sudden changes in temperature and PH. Their mild taste and hardiness make them ideal for this project. Lyke hopes that “Before the end of the year we might actually see some stuff growing.”  

Lyke first conceived the idea for the Aquaponics Club six years ago as he searched for a project his biology class could do year round.   It finally became a reality last year and has evolved into a full scale project.

“We do lots of stand-alone labs about unit topics, but I was so much more interested in having them work on something every time they come to class,” he says, “and that’s where I stumbled on aquaponics. The more I looked at it, the more it became clear that it was everything I teach in my curriculum.”

As Lyke continued to pursue his idea and devised plans to use it as an educational tool in the classroom, he began to wonder just how far he could take it. In the old State High building, students learned about aquaponics with regular fish tanks and an old, out-of-date greenhouse. Students enjoyed planting and transporting seeds into their systems, and they took pictures of their plants growing on a daily basis.  

However, Lyke knew that the program could be so much more. “I just kept snowballing with it,” he says, “and I had individual students who absolutely loved this and they got on board. They said I should start a club one day.” Now, Lyke has a 1,000-square-foot rooftop aquaponics greenhouse that can even control air temperature.

Not just for Science Students

Eventually, Lyke wants to engage the entire school in aquaponics. He emphasizes that the facilities belong to everyone and not just one particular department. All the faculty, staff and students are welcome to participate in what is going on at the school’s new facility. “They don’t have to think, ‘Oh I’ve got to be a science kid to do this’. No you can do anything you want. You can be anything you want,” Lyke says.

The potential learning opportunities related to the aquaponics project are endless. For example, students are able to spread information and educate the rest of the school through posters and brochures. This aspect of the project has the potential to reach students interested in marketing. Lyke also has plans to eventually sell what the Aquaponics Club produces, encouraging students interested in business to also get involved in the project.

The club also encourages students to use and hone their problem-solving skills. Students are sometimes asked to reassemble systems from five years ago or put brand new systems together, requiring students to not only find potential issues, but also find ways to solve the problem on their own. This technical problem solving is linked to lessons about sustainability and sustainable agricultural methods. Lyke connects this project to a major question facing the global community: How are we going to feed nine billion people in the year 2050?

“Aquaponics is a good way to try to introduce fresh produce to places that don’t have it,” Mr. Lyke added, “Because even around here in the Centre County region, there are places where people can’t buy reasonably priced fresh food. We certainly look at that from a sustainable end point.”

This food scarcity is far from an isolated problem. In the United States alone, over 20 percent of the population lives in food deserts without access to affordable, nutritious food. One of the many benefits of aquaponics is its ability to conserve water. Amazingly, it requires 89 percent less water to grow the same amount of lettuce as a regular farm. These types of aquacultural systems can also readily produce fish protein and are sustainable year-round, potentially allowing for constant food production.

The aquaponics project isn’t expected to simply stay in the greenhouse either. Mr. Lyke has ambitious plans to bring the project to elementary schools by building small rolling systems on carts. The plan is to make ten miniature aquaponics systems and have high school students distribute the systems and teach the younger kids how they work. Elementary students will grow plants throughout the school-year, which means that teachers can use them as tools in their classes.

“What we hope happens is that the students will work their way up through the school system and by the time they get to high school, they’re really well aware of what aquaponics is” Lyke says.

“That goes along with the whole sustainability thing. They say: if they grow it, they’ll eat it.”

You can follow Lyke’s progress on twitter @AquaponicJack or his Facebook page Aquaponics at State High. Teachers looking to start their own aquaponics project can also join the Facebook group Aquaponics and Education.