West Shore aquaponics supports urban agriculture, STEM education
Justin Weaver, who teaches a class in West Shore's aquaponics lab, pointed out a new plant variety for local restaurant owner Victoria Close, who came to the lab to buy greens for her salads.
"That's a new type of sorrel," he said, as she took a bite of the leaf on Tuesday, Dec. 3, testing its flavor.
Close, owner of Crostwater Distilled Spirits, in Fairview Township, just started buying from the district's Introduction to Aquaponics class of about 50 students from Red Land and Cedar Cliff high schools last month.
She and Weaver had met at her restaurant, where a conversation about talking to students about how to use sustainable ingredients led her to ask about buying them.
"Crostwater is a farm-to-table restaurant," she said. "Our menu changes weekly," so there's always a need for fresh produce.
The lab has about 20 varieties of plants, including fig, banana and peach trees; and Close is buying Swiss chard and different types of lettuce and microgreens.
She is the first customer for the lab, which was built this summer in the district's former planetarium. Equipment and training were provided by a $250,000 state grant.
West Shore's is one of 16 projects that received a Strategic Innovation grant from the state's Department of Labor & Industry — and the grant will be used by all 14 schools in the district.
It reflects a move toward urban agriculture in education in recent years. Lincoln and Crispus Attucks charter schools received miniaturized classroom aquaponics units last month, and York's City's Hope Street Learning Lab plans to install a hydroponics lab.
"People are becoming in general more connected with their food," Weaver said, which is one reason for the interest in urban agriculture.
But there's also a need in those areas for sustainable local food sources, he said.
Abby Nelson, 17, and Audrey Gil, 16 — students at Cedar Cliff — explained how the aquaponics process works.
"Short story: The plants grow off fish waste," Abby said.
Water from a tank housing about 50 koi is funneled into a tub where bacteria breaks down and the remaining nitrates filter into the stone and water beds where plants are growing. The nitrates are eventually sent back to the tank through drainage pipes.
"There's constantly water running, " Nelson said. "It never stops."
The educational benefits of aquaponics and hydroponics have been touted because of the myriad of career skills they encompass.
In Weaver's class, students can choose the area in which they want to focus, such as marketing, production, web programming, accounting and a satellite team which manages mobile units that go to the district's lower schools.
Students are running their own meetings, Weaver said, noting that they decide when to meet with Close, who in turn teaches them about the business side of packaging and production.
"We're the liaison between our teams," said Cedar Cliff 11th grader Irene Zvorsky, 16.
The class also gives students experience problem solving, for example, when earlier some fish got ulcers from the stress of being under the lights for too many hours and unable to sleep, so they had to be put in "hospital tanks" before they were rereleased.
The lab is just in its first year, and the district hopes to expand the program. There's already a waiting list for about 100 students, Weaver said.
One new element is a partnership with a Cedar Cliff's English language learner students, who are sharing plants from their home countries they would like to see grown in the lab, such as blue bananas from South America and cabbages from Russia.
Though there is only one class now, Weaver said students who have taken the class can do independent study and research, and he hopes some will come back to the intro class as managers.
"We had no idea what the response would be," he said. "It's turned out to be way more popular than we imagined."