Auburn aquaponics revisited

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

We recently had the opportunity to visit the new aquaponics system designed, constructed and run by students in Tim Bratina’s Rockford Auburn High School sociology class.

Upon our arrival, we were greeted by Auburn senior and Teaching Assistant Haley McGuire, a poised, cheerful young lady who explained the purpose, operation and ultimate application of the system. She pointed out the many global issues, from overabundant jellyfish in the oceans to global warming, that beg for systems such as this, which can produce abundant organic food without depleting resources or adding to pollution.

We then met other students who worked on the multi-disciplinary project: sophomore Rebecca McLine, who drew the plans; and juniors Brandon Ginger and La Tre Sowell, who cut and bent the plastic piping.

Last year, we saw their first system, which grew a handful of tomatoes, proudly shown in the class video, and perch.

This year, they are raising strawberries from seeds in small sponge plugs that prevent transplanting shock as well as dirt flushing through the system. They have waited to add fish until the water is free of ammonia. An improvement in design included growing the plants in small pots on towers, which reduced the square footage of the system and the weight of planting medium from 150 pounds to 30 pounds, allowing it to be portable.

The system can be easily disassembled and reassembled. Water recirculates through the plant pots and the fish aquarium; fish waste provides nutrients for the plants, which, in turn, provide nutrients for the fish.

After viewing last year’s project, we invited the students to participate in the Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. Initially, they were anxious no one would attend their program or those who did would ask questions beyond their knowledge level. To their delight, they were well received by their large audience. Both felt good about the experience.

McGuire reported that the overall experience was excellent and that she benefited from seeing and learning from the other educational opportunities available at the fair.

This year’s class plans to participate in the 2014 fair, and class members are happily anticipating August.

At the beginning of the semester, Bratina challenged the class to reach new project goals, which include the following:

1. Incorporate red worms;

2. Cut project costs;

3. Cut the square footage;

4. Cut the overall weight of the boxes;

5. Try growing fruit; and

6. Make the grow units portable so they can be moved from the classroom to other spaces, as needed.

To meet those goals, they researched how to achieve them and successfully grow foods. Bratina is happy to report the students met all of the goals and that the open house provided the opportunity to let others know of their successes.

In addition, learning took place in multiple areas, including mathematics, economics, biology, history, politics and working cooperatively.

The students hope their efforts will foster interest in the broader community in developing more local food-growing projects to stimulate economic growth and job opportunities.

We think we’ll try a system at home.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair.

From the Jan. 22-28, 2014, issue

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