Biology Independent Project: Aquaponics
Guest Post by Terrence Xiao ’16
My name is Terrence Xiao, I’m a four year senior from Beijing, China, and I have a weird obsession with fish. For the past school year (and a little more), I’ve been conducting an independent research project about aquaponics. Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics – in layman terms, that’s fish farming and gardening; the fish waste is used to fertilize the plants, and in the same process, the waste water is cleaned and can be recycled throughout the system.
For me, it all started with my when I was younger: I thought fish were basically the coolest things ever (I was a weird kid), and became obsessed with aquariums. I realized having more stuff in them (plants, shrimp, snail, clams, frogs, turtles, worms – you name it, I’ve tried it) not only made them more interesting, but more versatile ecological communities; I could let bottom feeders clean up uneaten food instead of having to do it myself, and I never had to worry about dissolved oxygen levels or ammonia build ups because I had plants to regulate all of those factors for me. All of this culminated in an academic interest in environmental science. When I learned about global crises such as the food challenge and global climate change, I began to explore ideas within the field that served as potential solutions. That’s when I stumbled across aquaponics.
This project started officially started during the Fall Term of the 2015-2016 school year. Fall term was all about research, winter term was all about building the system, and spring term has been focused on community engagement. I applied for an independent project through the Abbot Independent Scholars Program each term, to integrated the project within my academic curriculum, as well as an abbot grant through the Abbot Academy Association to fund the construction process, which I received in the winter.
The project had two broad goals – the first was to actually build an aquaponics system; to see if it actually worked, to deepen my own understanding, and most importantly, to reunite with my precious hobby of fishkeeping! The second goal was community engagement; often, issues such as environmental sustainability are construed as lofty and intangible, especially by us mere high school students. I wanted to show that these ideas, relevant on a global scale, could actually be substantiated and explored in a very physical, direct capacity, especially with the wealth of resources available to us as students here at PA.
Construction was complete by the end of winter term, and the system was left to cycle over spring break.
When I returned, the project switched focus to community outreach and utilizing the functioning system as a tool for engaging with others. I’ve given multiple presentations over the course of this last term – a NEST presentation in the makerspace, lectures for biology classes and science electives, and presentations to various student groups, just to name a few. Each of these presentations were learning opportunities for me because I switched my focus depending on individual venues and audiences. The subjects I’ve talked about range from the academic principles that aquaponics embodied, to a procedural focus on the project itself and how it helped shape my experience of hands on learning and engagement as a student.
Aside from these presentations, I’ve been maintain a digital portfolio, in part as an organizational tool, but mostly as a platform for community engagement – the WordPress blog (linked below) I’m running contains a narrative documentation of the project since its beginning, as well as a synthesis of my research available for others to explore. Please feel free to check it out.
The year may be almost over, but this project certainly isn’t! The system will be sticking around in Gelb 109 for the following years, where its maintenance will be taken over as a student work duty. I’m hoping that it can be used by others as a learning tool (A biology 580 group is already using it for their ecology project) and to maintain a conversation on campus about environmentalism and sustainability within our community.