When you think of going green, you probably think of recycling and of people driving around in Priuses. But the Springville Middle School seventh- and eighth-graders have decided to take environmental conservation to a new level.
In a town that stresses agriculture, these students are fusing modern-day ecological technology with the natural environment to pioneer a new branch of sustainable and healthy aquaculture -- it's called aquaponics.
Seventh-grade science teacher Brandon Wojcik, eighth-grade social studies teacher Joe Karb and technology teacher Mike Stefan initiated the project, which the students now run by themselves.
The general basis is a closed system that is self-sustaining, natural and produces no waste.
"It's a cycle," said Neha Flier, an eighth-grader working on the project.
The teachers built a giant contraption, located in the school's technology lab. The top of it is built to hold plants, and the bottom of it is a 500-gallon heated water tank that is filled with hundreds of tilapia, fish that grow rapidly to about the size of a dinner plate. The plants are grown with LED light panels.
The water in the tank also contains fish waste, which is nutrient-rich fertilizer for the plants. It's pumped to the plants overhead, watering and fertilizing them. The water is then filtered back down to the tank, continuing the cycle. Also, the fish are omnivores, but they have a vegetable-based diet, which allows them to be fed by the plants above.
The students got 400 tilapia fingerlings from SUNY Cobleskill, as well as some training to get started. It's relatively cheap to begin; the essentials are a good location, a power source, seeds and the fish. After some help and research with the teachers, the Aquaponics Project has evolved into an entirely student-powered movement.
"It's quite a learning process," said Wojcik, with a smile.
The students have divided themselves into teams, each with specific jobs. The "fish team" is responsible for weighing, feeding and measuring the tilapia, as well as checking for any health issues. The "water team" regulates the water heat, pH, turbidity, dissolved oxygen and ammonia levels to keep the fish safe and healthy. The "food team" uses leftover food scraps from the cafeteria as compost for the plants. They also monitor and harvest the algae, duckweed and watercress, as well as prepare food for the tilapia to eat.
The inspiration for the Springville project is an organization called the Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP), the urban farming facility located on Buffalo's West Side. MAP is similar to the Springville project, but on a larger scale. They too work with tilapia, however, they breed thousands of fish at a time. They then sell these fish to local restaurants.
Jesse Meeder, the founder of MAP, thinks that aquaponics has a lot of potential for developing areas and urban communities.
"I think it's important that people know where their food comes from, and also what it takes to produce good, safe, natural food," said Meeder. "The Springville students are off to a great start. It's important to experiment. We can always do more."
He spoke with the students about how aquaponics farming could be brought to people with low incomes and limited opportunities. They discussed the importance of "reclaiming the food system" after the global impact of the commercial food industry.
The Springville students have come up with their own ideas to expand and build upon their project in the future. They talked with each other about possibly experimenting with different types of fish and plants, including bass. They also discussed using solar power and bringing this type of aquaculture to other schools or regions.
If, at the end of June, the fish are plate-sized, the students are planning on hosting a fish dinner. The money raised will be donated to support a local charity.
"Aquaponics is one more step forward to help out the planet. It's a cheap and natural way to end starvation," said seventh-grade participant Zach Cudney. "For us, it's opened up a new door "
For more information about the Springville Aquaponics project, check out www.springvilletilapia.weebly.com.
Alissa Roy is a sophomore and Caroline Francisco is a freshman at Springville Griffith Institute.