These days, there's more to a school science experiment than growing beans in a cup of potting soil or studying the habits of goldfish.
For science research students at South Carroll High School, experiments mean simulating life cycles within the confines of a mini-warehouse and using computers to develop and operate systems that support and preserve aquatic and plant life.
"This class gives students the chance to explore their love of science," said science research instructor Robert Foor-Hogue. "These students have to research and work. They have to be accurate. I mean, they have to. You have to reproduce nature here."
Mr. Foor-Hogue and his students showed their expertise in aquaculture to parents, school officials and business leaders in the workroom and computer laboratory in South Carroll's Career and Technology Center during a recent open house.
The visitors listened and watched intently as the students explained the workings of intricate networks of tubes, tanks and pipes that encircled the room. Each network is part of an aquaculture system in the refurbished lab, where life is preserved and studied in 150-gallon to 1,800- gallon tanks.
Like the ecosystem that surrounds all of us, many of the system's parts have a symbiotic relationship. An air delivery system runs from a central turbine to supply air to the 10-tank systems in the room.
At Mr. Foor-Hogue's suggestion, seniors Brian Eybes and Dave Berlin designed and installed the tube and pipe arrangement that connects the aquaculture systems.
The overall system is designed to accommodate tanks as they are added without sacrificing the efficiency of the system, they said.
One aquaculture project in the lab is senior Matthew Taylor's hydroponic garden of peppers, tomatoes and lettuce, which are growing in a controlled indoor environment without soil.
Matthew planted the vegetables in large pipes above fish tanks that contain bluegills and goldfish. Water circulates from the tanks through the pipes, bringing waste from the fish. Rocks in the tubes that hold down the plant roots accumulate bacteria that convert the fish waste to nutrients that feed the plants.
"Basically, it is just using the waste from the fish to fertilize the plants all in one system," Matthew said. "You control just about everything that affects these plants' environment."
Matthew lauded hydroponics, but stopped short of making a judgment about hydronics vs. farm-grown produce.
"Your hydronically grown tomatoes tend to be bigger, juicier," he said. "But is it better? Well, if you ask a farmer, he might not think so."
The South Carroll students also strive to preserve national resources and spread their educational resources. Senior Nicole Laster, with fellow student coordinator Jason Lewis, helped develop a wetlands preservation project at Piney Ridge Elementary School.
The project involves building a boardwalk and mulch trail around wetlands so students will be able to observe the ecosystem without disturbing it. In the past, while studying the plant life and organisms, students tramped around the area wearing boots, which was destroying the wetlands environment, Nicole said.
The project will include two observation wings and an area nearby that can be used as a teaching platform.
"It's going to be used as a teaching facility for the elementary school," said Nicole, who expects to begin studying engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., in the fall. "They [elementary students] have a lot of animal and plant life they can observe. Not only are they helping the environment, but they get a good teaching tool."
The teaching part of the project has begun, even though the first planks have not yet been laid. Nicole and Jason used fourth- and fifth-grade students to conduct tests on the site and had them write a grant proposal to the Chesapeake Bay Trust asking for money to pay for a resource restoration or preservation project.
They requested about $2,600 for lumber to build the boardwalk and observation deck, Nicole said.
South Carroll's science research class has been able to implement various projects using its aquaculture systems. Fish that have been raised and studied in the lab in the school's Catch-and-Release Program repopulate streams.
In May, brown trout were released into Morgan Run.
"We're certainly proud of what we do to help preserve the environment," Mr. Foor-Hogue said. "And each child we teach about how things live and survive in nature is another person we get to care about the environment."
Mr. Foor-Hogue's pride in his students' accomplishments was evident as he toured the exhibit with visitors, many of whom had made the aquaculture project a success. Without donations of time, materials and money from parents and business people, he said, the project's goals would have been much harder to meet.
For example, Hahn's Sausage donated seven 300-gallon fiberglass tanks to the school two years ago. The gift was used to create an 1,800-gallon, six-tank system where students raise five species of aquatic life, including bluegills, goldfish and Matthew's vegetables. The purchase of those tanks would have cost the school $1,400.
Many of the students have written proposals to the Chesapeake Bay Trust to cover the cost of their projects. The school has received thousands of dollars in grant money because of the professional caliber of the proposals, Mr. Foor-Hogue said.
"We do a lot of advanced computerized design. One of the main reasons we get so much of our grant money is because of the sophistication of the computerized drawings," he said. "When they see these drawings made by high school students that look like engineering designs, I'm sure they are impressed."
Students consider the class a great opportunity to learn something ordinary science classes can't teach.
"This class is definitely a good program," said Matthew. "You couldn't go into a regular science class and have the kind of experience that you get in here."
Dave said that "It helps us learn on our own, do our own projects. It's basically just teacher assisted."
Brian agreed, but added: "I think one difference about this class is that you have to be organized. You have to plan everything, each detail, yourself."