Rethinking Urban Agriculture: An Aquaponics Approach

Final Report for YENC12-039

Project Type: Youth Educator
Funds awarded in 2012: $2,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Manager:
Michael Dittrich
Maplewood Richmond Heights School District
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Project Information



We built and continue to maintain an aquaponics system using native and non-native fish to support multiple grow beds in an area.  Students from high school and middle school science classes and sustainability classes used the project for a multitude of projects and provided a stepping stone for additional practices in the building.


Project Activities-  

  • Served as an example of a closed loop system for students’ study.  Students were able to collect data around size of fish, amount of ammonia in water, water temperature, and amount of light that was then compared to the growth rates of the plants.
  • Was used for students with special needs (non verbal and low cognitive processing) that were working on one-step and two-step directions.  These students took on responsibilities of feeding fish and collecting data.
  • Currently our sustainability class is designing a portable watering system to deliver nitrogen rich water extracted from system during water exchanges to indoor plants around the building.  Prior to this water was emptied into floor drain.


Prior to this grant to build and make an aquaponics system sustainable on our campus we had multiple sustainability projects on campus.  On campus currently we also have two gardens.  One is set up as a production garden while the other uses a permaculture model. In one of our gardens we also house a few urban chickens that the students hatched last year.  The fourth sustainable project we have here is our MRH Bees.  Our Bees our part of a 5-year study that we have been doing for pollination on our campus. We also harvest the hives to make honey, lip balm, etc. to sell for fundraisers and at a local farmers market. An indoor vermiculture system and outdoor compost bins recycle cafeteria waste into garden fertility, and students receive extensive education on composting and the waste cycle in their science classes. Students are not given a sustainability curriculum outside of the regular curriculum.  All of our projects are integrated into what we do in our general curriculum.  



Goal 1- Students understand and are able to apply the basic concepts and principles of sustainability (i.e. meeting present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.)


Goal 2- Students recognize the concept of sustainability as a dyadic condition characterized by the interdependency among ecological, economic, and social systems and how these interconnected systems affect individual and societal well being.  They develop an understanding of the human connection to and interdependence with the natural world.


Goal 3- Students develop a multidisciplinary approach to learning the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to continuously improve the health and well being of present and future generations, via both personal and collective decisions and actions.  They are able to envision a world that is sustainable, along with the primary changes that would need to be made by individuals, local communities, and countries in order to achieve this.



Our first step was to conduct background research and assemble our support for the project.  We used a multi-partner approach to conducting this project.  We have worked collaboratively with university researchers, aquatic biologists, and community members.  These connections have helped us set up, grow and maintain our system.  The collaborators serve as connections for students to others who work in the career field.  


Once we developed partner capacity, we brought together a core group of middle school students to become early adopters.  These students received background instruction and training in the components of the project.  These initial students developed many of the systems we currently use to collect data, assign tasks, and make decisions.  Data collection procedures, feeding and weighing protocol, and maintenance procedures started with this core group of students.


We use multi-age and ability students in our lab because of the nature of the project.  There is room for the differentiation of involvement, allowing students from all levels to take on challenging roles. We have students who range from simply measuring temperature to students who meet with endangered species recovery scientists to coordination between labs.



Rick Bischoff with Facilities Management Group visited our facilities.  After seeing the innovation in our district, FMG donated two LED hanging lights for our main grow bed.  The estimated cost of the donation was $1900.


Ben Nims, high school environmental science teacher, growing plants for the aquaponics grow bed, and teaching his class about the closed-loop system.


Melissa Breed-Parks, garden coordinator, facilitating grow bed operations.


Science teachers Scott McClintock and Bill Henske used the lab to discuss systems thinking and how minor changes to systems can have a major impact on the overall quality. Data collected in the lab is used in science classes for data interpretation lessons.


We are currently looking at adding a tank to grow minnows in partnership with the Saint Louis Zoo. Our students will spawn minnows and grow them to appropriate size for the Hellbender project at the St. Louis Zoo.  In return our students will receive special permissions to observe and tour the facilities at the zoo where they are performing groundbreaking research for reestablishing Hellbender populations back to their natural habitats.



As a system that requires a large amount of energy input, we did not create a sustainable agricultural endeavour.  We did create an important learning space for that conversation.  Classes can now investigate the inputs to the system and relate them to the outputs.  Cost effectiveness can be directly quantified through measurement of costs and value of output.  Efficiency can be investigated through comparison of energy in and energy out measurements.  Students learn about the flow of nutrients through a system and how certain components are recycled.   Students learn the nature of closed versus open systems and make important connections between the aquaponics system and the environment in which it is housed.  Within the middle school, there are 25 students directly involved in the aquaponics projects.  The aquaponics lab is used for instruction in 2 high school environmental science courses, directly involving 20 students.  Additionally, the facilities are available for students conducting research projects of a science research class.



The first step of this project was to get the aquaponics system up and going.  Based on a desire to get this up and going as quickly as possible we found several mistakes were made.  There were minimal discussions with buildings and grounds to determine an appropriate location for the lab. After some humidity issues and a fish kill, we sought out an expert in Dr. James Wetzel from Lincoln University.  Dr. Wetzel visited the school alongside Principal Michael Dittrich and visited multiple potential new sites around campus for the lab relocation.  With Dr. Wetzel’s guidance we found an old storage area that was then cleaned out.  The district invested several thousand dollars into this area to add electric and a sump pump system to meet the desired specifications Dr. Wetzel recommended. In the future, it is imperative that we consult experts prior to allocating spaces for new sustainability projects.


One result that was unexpected was the fact that plants in the grow beds that were closer to the water dispensing pipe grew at a faster rate than those away from the outlet.  Students determined that the plants closer to the outlet were being exposed to higher amount of nutrient rich water than those at the end of the grow bed near the drain.


A change we made after we began the lab was moving the method of which we feed our fish.  In the beginning we asked students to visit the lab two times a day to feed the fish.  We found that the fish experienced higher growth rates when fed continuously with belt feeders rather than feeding larger amounts twice a day.



North Central SARE Presentation at the National Small Farm Trade Show & Conference (2012)


Green Education Foundation

Internal Article on expansion through an additional grant


MRH Green Schools Conference


In addition to the above articles and presentations, MRHMS has applied to present at the National Green School Conference in Virginia next March.  We are awaiting approval of our presentation.

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.