One of the largest aquaponics systems in the northeast United States has found a home at Colonial Middle School (CMS). The school’s light court now houses a 250-gallon fish tank, four growing beds, special lights and a filtration system to support live fish and live plants.
“Basically, we feed the fish, and the fish’s waste gets processed in the tank and pumped out into the water where the plants are feeding. It acts as a fertilizer for the plants and enables them to grow quicker,” said CMS eighth grader Shane Murphy. “I like to see how the roots underneath the plants spread out. They look like spiderwebs.”
The school’s aquaponics club planted seven varieties of lettuce, including arugula, iceberg and kale. Different teams from the club check on the plants, feed the fish, clean the tank, test the water and log the results each day.
“Taking the readings is pretty fun,” said CMS seventh grader Paige Sarro. “There are certain chemicals that are good and bad. You don’t want a lot of ammonia in there, because that’s waste. But there are certain things like the pH, where if it’s a little bit higher, it’s not that big a deal.”
Aquaponics is not new to CMS. Science teacher Clint Rickert introduced an aquaponics system into the technology education classes more than a decade ago. Last year, the club was responsible for a much smaller tank and had fewer than 10 members — compared to the more than 30 students now working on the new system.
“I was in it last year. We didn’t have this tank,” said Paige. “To see it’s so big is kind of cool, because so many more people are interested in it.”
Aquaponics has a natural connection to the sciences classes in all three grades at CMS, and the seventh grade science teachers planted their own crop of purple zebrina, a plant they use each year to study stomata, the cells that let the gases and water out of plants, under a microscope. However, other classes at CMS are using the aquaponics system, as well. Eighth grade social studies students are growing their own plants for a lesson about Jamestown, and the family and consumer science (FCS) department has planted basil.
“We’re happy that a lot of the different subject areas are diving in right away and using it with the eighth grade and FCS,” said aquaponics club adviser and seventh grade science teacher Bill Ryan. “We want everyone to come down here. We want the system to be part of the culture and for everyone to get involved with it. The more the merrier.”
Riverbend Environmental Education Center in Gladwyne has installed several aquaponics systems in Colonial and the region, including the new one at CMS. In addition to providing all of the mechanical parts, Riverbend also brought healthy bacteria from an existing system and native Pennsylvania fish, including minnows and bluegill, from the Schuylkill River.