Students in Jack Lyke’s biology class at State College Area High School are preparing a feast. But it will be a while before they can enjoy the fruits of their labor.
In the meantime, the eventual meal is a hands-on learning experience in the classroom.
Lyke has incorporated aquaponics — a combination of aquatic culture and hydroponics — into his classroom’s greenhouse with the use of nine tilapia and dozens of plants like tomatoes, lettuce and parsley, which will be consumed at an end of the school year celebration.
Fish in an aquaponics system are fed and create waste to fertilize plants growing at the top of the fish tank. The plants, in turn, purify the water for the fish.
The primary purpose of the greenhouse’s 110-gallon aquaponics system, however, is to educate students throughout the various biology class units.
“Our next unit is on cell membranes, and we’ll talk about fish cell membranes,” Lyke said. “Whatever we talk about in class we can point back to what’s going on in our aquaponics system.”
Biology teacher Sue Braun has also incorporated Lyke’s project into her classroom, and the two teachers are having their classes build aquaponics systems on a smaller scale.
“I thought this class might be boring,” freshman Isabelle Caldwell said. “I thought it would be a lot of book work and diagrams and tests, but I never realized we’d be doing anything as interesting as this.”
Lyke introduced the aquaponics system he built to students during the first week of school. He then told them they’d have the rest of the school year to research, design, build and sustain their own aquaponics systems.
It’s not easy for classes of over 20 students to work together on one project.
“There is debate sometimes over who’s right and who’s wrong and who needs to do more work, and we don’t always talk out loud to each other, so we talk a lot on the Google doc, which causes some miscommunication where someone might accidentally delete something from our plans,” sophomore Elena Gomez said.
“I think it’s especially difficult, because there are a lot of us, but that’s part of this whole process,” sophomore Lauryn Gierchak said. “We have had to learn how to communicate with each other.”
Each class submitted a rough proposal for its aquaponics system Tuesday.
Sophomores Joe McCracken, Gavin Schaefer-Hood and Gabe Avillion tested Lyke’s first period tank for leaks Monday. They want to build a 20-gallon raft aquaponics system with goldfish and green-leaf plants. The system will be simplified by using Styrofoam and mesh to rest plant roots in at the top of the tank.
Each class’ tank is expected to be set up by February.
“One thing we’ve discovered is there’s no right or wrong way or system to do this,” Avillion said. “There are a lot of different ways to grow these plants and some may be more successful than others, but we’re not bound to one system. If we see great growth with one system, we’ll stick with it. If we think we can do better with something else, we can do that. It’s all an experiment, and we’re enjoying it.”
Lyke began thinking about incorporating aquaponics in the classroom about a year ago when he overheard another science teacher talking about growing lettuce with it.
“I did a quick Internet search on it and got 10,000 hits on aquaponics,” Lyke said. “I continued my research and realized everything in an aquaponics ecosystem is everything I teach and that it could be modeled within an aquaponics ecosystem.”
He also said he couldn’t find anyone else using aquaponics in the classroom.
“It’s pretty cool being one of the only high schools to have an opportunity like this,” Schaefer-Hood said. “I guess we’re kind of the guinea pigs for this project.”
Schaefer-Hood broke off a small piece of lettuce on Lyke’s aquaponics system.
“It’s not bad,” Schaefer-Hood said.