Students in teacher Glen Hedelson's Environmental Science II Class at Bel Air High School are learning alternative methods of food production in their new aquaponics lab.
Hedelson was able to convert the school's conventional greenhouse into a fully operational aquaponics facility that raises fish and produce.
"This is an incredible opportunity for students to learn about modern agricultural practices," Hedelson said. "They can experiment with adjusting food, sun and other variables to see impacts on the fish and plant growth."
The lab has several tanks for growing fish connected to planting beds that are growing lettuce. Solar-powered pumps periodically flood the plant beds with the nutrient-rich water from the fish tanks, which cleans the tank water and fertilizes the plants.
According to Harford County Public Schools, the symbiotic relationship mimics a balanced ecosystem and allows students to learn how the natural world operates without pollution.
"The system was designed with two goals in mind. Incorporate new technology, and secondly, we wanted our students to see how the system operated," Andrew Cassilly, HCPS resource conservation manager, said.
Viewing windows were installed so students can see the bio filters that clean the fish tanks in action, as well as the solar panel that is mounted above the tank.
The practice of aquaponics for fish and crop production is rapidly growing in popularity. Aquaponics farmers closely monitor their systems to maximize production while reducing the risk of contamination to both plants and animals.
Students in the Environmental Science II class are able to grow and harvest crops and learn how the process contributes to a healthy diet.
"We are very excited to be part of such a wonderful learning opportunity for our students," Gary Childress, HCPS supervisor of food and nutrition, said.
Hedelson, Cassilly and Childress collaborated on the project. They enlisted the services of Burdette Industries, an aquaculture/aquaponics company near Aberdeen, to help design and construct the system.
The project was funded largely with a grant secured with the support of the HCPS Food and Nutrition Department. The money was available under a Healthier U.S. School Challenge Grant for the purpose of promoting healthy food choices and practices.
The Bel Air High project is an initiative to support both STEM and the "Farm to Schools" programs, HCPS Manager of Communications Jillian Lader explained in an email.
The species of fish in the lab's tanks may vary.
Currently the tank has tilapia and once they are too large for the tank, they will be replaced, Lader said.
Students will experiment with different types of fish and crops, as well as other variables, to see the impact on the system and production levels, she said.
Some of the produce grown in the lab is used to supplement the vegetable orders in the cafeteria for student lunches, she noted.