WARREN — Each morning before the first bell, Warren Woods Tower High School freshman Michael Manczuk heads over to the school’s aquaponics classroom.
Prior to the start of class and even during his lunch hour, Manczuk fills up the fish tanks, dechlorinates the water, cleans up fish pellets and organizes the plants. He is one of 45 special-needs students who help maintain the aquaponics program on a regular basis.
“I just like helping people that need help in the morning,” he said.
The aquaponics program combines aquaculture with hydroponics to produce fresh herbs and lettuce in a soil-free environment. Instead of dirt, the items are grown in expanded clay pellets.
The students — with assistance from occupational therapists Michele Morgan and Deb Carlton — use tilapia fish from a local aquaponics farm in the process. The fish live in the classroom in three 55-gallon tanks that provide nutrients to three separate grow beds. The students also keep a few goldfish as a backup.
Sophomore Chris Elle said the wastes from the fish travel up a water pump from each tank. The wastes are converted into a usable form of nitrogen that expands into the expanded clay.
“The roots growing underneath the clay are receiving nutrients,” Morgan said.
The clay is light and allows the roots to flow, and it does not affect the PH of the water.
“(With) dirt, the water gets cloudy and the fish can get really sick or die,” Elle said.
Through that and proper maintanance, including lighting for 12 hours a day, basil, parsley and lettuce are produced. Fish food is the fuel the tilapia use to create the nutrients.
Students check the water on a weekly basis. On the morning of Feb. 20, junior Amber Majewski carefully lined up three test tubes and added a pH solution to each one in order to test the water in the fish tanks.
“This one was OK, this one was a little low,” Majewski said. “This was OK.”
“They take samples of the water and use pH to make sure the water is healthy so the fish won’t die or get really ill,” Elle said. “I like looking at all the different fish.”
Through a bio-filter, the water then goes back down to the fish. It usually takes a month for a crop to fully grow.
“Romaine lettuce really likes the aquaponics system,” Morgan said. “The produce is amazing. The intensity of the basil and parsley is stronger. It tastes better.”
The aquaponics system developed a partnership between the special-needs students and the school’s culinary arts department. The student chefs use the aquaponics herbs and lettuce when cooking for the school’s restaurant, the Titan Terrace. Fish that expire go to the culinary students to use in filet lessons.
“The collaboration between special education and the commercial foods department has been the highlight of the program, bringing programs that are traditionally separate together to serve all students,” Morgan said.
Also inside the aquaponics classroom is a vermiponics system with approximately 2,500 worms that makes worm composts inside a “worm bin.” Carlton said the culinary students deliver food scraps. The special-needs students then process the food scraps and break them down into smaller pieces for the worms to more efficiently break down and convert into usable composts inside the worm bins. The special-needs students also shred newspaper to place in the bins for bedding.
The worms eat the food scraps, and their waste is used in the potting soil used in the program’s greenhouse, where plants are in a soil-based garden. The aquaponics students also supply water to the worm bins on a daily basis to provide moisture.
The worm composts “will be used to amend potting soil to be used in house plants throughout the district,” Morgan said. The pesticide-free worm composts will be used in place of commercial fertilizer.
The school’s aquaponics program has been in existence for two years. The program is self-sufficient.
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