Newell Elementary School students are able to care for fish and plants in an aquaponic system as part of an after-school club.
An aquaponic system combines raising fish (aquaculture) with the soil-less growing of plants (hydroponics) to grow fish and plants together in one integrated system. Integration Specialist Krystal Spilger said Newell received a grant from Beyond School Bells for the system, which was installed by Whispering Roots in December 2018.
Students began growing things in it in January.
Spilger said Newell was the first Grand Island Public Schools elementary school to have an aquaponic system installed. She added West Lawn and Howard also have aquaponic systems, and Walnut is in the process of getting one installed.
Before putting the plants into the aquaponic system, Spilger said students use dehydrated coconut husks as soil and put the plant seeds on top of it to grow. Once the plants have sprouted, they are placed in a planter above a fish tank to complete their growth.
Spilger said a single fish, named Bubba, poops in the tank, which acts as a fertilizer and creates a chemical reaction that helps the plants “grow and flourish” in the aquaponic system.
“What is happening is it is helping the fish,” she said. “It filters the water from the plant system down into the tank. When we look at this, we think of it as a pond; one goes and connects to the other.”
Spilger said there are currently 14 students who care for the aquaponic system in an after-school club. All of the students are fifth-graders.
“I am just starting with the fifth-graders,” she said. “Then, I will have third-graders later on, followed by fourth-graders.”
As part of the after-school club, fifth-graders split into three groups with distinct jobs: agricultural engineers, biologists and chemical engineers. The jobs involve caring for Bubba the fish, who lives in the tank, cleaning the fish tank and taking care of the plants that are in the system and those that may need transplanted into it.
Newell fifth-graders Alessa Aguilar, Shaylee Meister-Lomasney, Christian Campucano and Leah Michalski served as biologists during the club’s meeting last Monday afternoon.
“We have to make sure that all the algae gets cleaned out of the tank and we have to get this white stuff off of the top of the tank,” Alessa said. “It is important to get that off of there because it could get into the tank, it could mix the chemicals and the water could get bad and he (Bubba) could die.”
The fifth-grade biologists said that as they complete their tasks at club meetings, they work together and communicate with each other to decide who will do what to get the jobs done. They added they only serve as biologists and do not rotate between the three jobs.
“We usually clean the tank twice,” Alessa said. “One person does that and then we vacuum. We clean it each Monday. Every day, one of us has a day to come feed the fish in the morning.”
“The best part about this is that we get to provide the fish (with food) and make sure everything is good.”
Alessa said she and her classmates have had to react to issues that may arise in the aquaponic system. Originally, there were two fish in the tank, but the second fish kept biting Bubba and he “got really hurt,” so they had to separate them using a divider.
“Bubba went into a little bucket and then we got a divider so the other fish wouldn’t hurt him,” Alessa said. “But then something happened with the divider, so somebody came and took the other fish. Bubba got sort of traumatized and would always stay in the corner and hide. Now, he is not really traumatized anymore.”
Spilger said Newell third-graders who saved Bubba from the “bully fish” observe him closely to ensure he is feeling OK and is no longer scared.
Newell fifth-graders Landon Ritchie, Logan Hinrikus, Gavin Schwartz and Hunter Spanjer served as agricultural engineers at last Monday’s after-school club.
Landon said he and his fellow agricultural engineers transplanted six to eight plants in the aquaponic system. He added the group transplants about every two weeks.
“We are taking the plants out and putting them in the system,” Landon said. “Once they are finished, we have to take off all the leaves. Then, we have to decide if we want to put them in bags and take them home or keep them here at school.”
Logan said he and Landon will come in outside of the after-school club and water the plants with a bucket. He added he has a spray bottle for “spritzing” where he will spray the plants for humidity.
“I also look for bugs,” Logan said. “If there are bugs, I use the vacuum to suck them up.”
Fifth-graders Jonny Arcos-Hernandez and Connor Brown were two students who served as chemical engineers. Jonny said they use vials, place them into the fish tank until five millimeters of water are in them and place some solutions in the water sample to test the water.
“We shake it (vial) and the chart tells us things like what kind of pH it has and if the water has a good amount of nitrate ammonia or another nitrate,” Jonny said.
He added that if there is too much nitrate ammonia or another nitrate, the chemical engineers will think of a solution to fix it. Possible solutions include moving the fish tank to another area of the library to affect the environment.
Connor said he uses a computer to track the plant growth in the aquaponic system, as well as the pH levels of the water samples, over time.
Spilger said some of the plants that are grown in the hydroponic system include basil, cucumbers and tomatoes. She added once the plants are fully grown, they are harvested and either given away or used at the school for food.