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An Adventure in Aquaponics: Three Waconia High School Seniors Fish for Sustainable Success

It began when Waconia High School science and engineering teacher Mike Jensen wanted to build a system to grow fish and produce, using a smaller footprint, in the classroom. When students Charlie Kinneberg, Max Doty, and Evan Schumacher discovered the project in an environmental engineering course, they were hooked.

In its simple form, aquaponics is a closed, soil-free system that cycles water between fish and plants. The plants have bacteria on their roots that convert the fish waste into nutrients that promote plant growth. The clean water is then recycled back to the fish. A rocky media serves as a plant root bed that traps “bad bacteria” to keep it from disrupting the system.

As Charlie, Max, and Evan explained, aquaponics uses 90 percent less water than traditional farming, and the USDA recently declared it can be an organic way of farming, so long as organic practices (i.e., organic seeds) are used. With hydroponics, manmade chemicals are used; in aquaponics, fish naturally make the chemicals.

“The bacteria are nitrifying bacteria,” Evan explained. “It’s like the digestive system inside of us. We have a microbiome of different bacteria to help us digest food. This is an external digestive system, so it’s on the roots, and it changes the ammonia that the fish excrete into something the plant can use.”

Not unlike fish, plants, and bacteria, these three seniors played well off each other’s strengths in describing the growth and progress of what has become a strong independent study that Jensen now guides. They’ve dubbed their organization “MEC”—Max, Evan, and Charlie.

To get the project started and to gain foundational understanding of the biology and chemistry, the MEC team set up an on-site tour and visit with Dr. Alex Primus at the University of Minnesota. They then formed instrumental relationships with Spark-Y, a youth-empowering nonprofit that supports education in sustainability and entrepreneurship.

Spark-Y helped them learn more about fish and animal plant compatibility, refine their engineering design concepts, and develop acumen in small-business skills. Max, Evan, and Charlie each had Spark-Y project supervisors and clients, and each became Spark-Y Sustainability Certified through the summer internship program.

What are good plant and fish combinations? Evan explained that salmon and spinach grow well together because they prefer colder temperatures. There are also plants and fish that are less temperature-sensitive. “We’re using bluegill in our tank, and people also commonly think of tilapia. . . . They’re easy to take care of, widely available, and adaptable,” Charlie and Max said[tlp1] .

The MEC team discovered that butter leaf lettuce grew well and quickly. “It was pretty cool to have the product of your system that you built and planted . . . so you could sit down and eat a salad,” Max said.  

Plans to scale up include the goal of producing food for ISD 110 students and for local restaurants. “We’d like to sell our produce to Lola’s [Lakehouse] or Iron Tap,” Charlie said. “One of the things we learned about from Spark-Y was growing microgreens,” Max said. “It’s profitable, and although there are specific techniques, it’s easy to grow and there is high demand for them in restaurants. They’re often plated and aesthetically appealing.”

They’ve tinkered with growing microgreens in the dark that are all white. They also tried growing popcorn kernels via their Spark-Y internship. Spark-Y shared a valuable bank of documented growing successes and failures with MEC.

Aquaponics has so many advantages, according to the MEC team. It’s not polluting the waters, it’s organic, there are no pesticides, and it offers a full yield all year long, even here in Minnesota. And it’s simple to do. Max described a goldfish and string set-up that yielded plant growth. They’d like to have set-ups around the high school and work with other students’ talents to make the systems visually appealing.

“I see these three students now as engineers and leads,” Jensen said. “They’re the ones setting up meetings with people. They are presenting to different stakeholders—the school board, Spark-Y, and the Lions Club—to ask for money. They are in the promotion phase. They will be in the building phase, hopefully soon.”

The school district has a shed allocated to the independent study that needs to be insulated, but it could then be used to grow plants on a larger scale. Max said they’ve spoken with Barb Schank, director of Nutritional Services for ISD 110, about these plans.

“This is the kind of learning I hope our kids can and should be involved with,” Jensen said. “Students don’t learn in a prescribed way, and our economy isn’t built this way. So having these opportunities for kids to explore these pathways while still getting credit helps them make the transition from the hand-holding that happens in middle and early high school to being more independent learners and creative thinkers.”

To learn more about the latest in the MEC aquaponics adventure, email kdslabs@gmail.com.