North Stonington students learn modern farming methods via aquaponics system

North Stonington — Michael Shugrue has big plans for a long-neglected greenhouse in the corner of Wheeler Middle/High School's campus.

For many years, the greenhouse largely sat empty, lacking a heating system, with the remains of a defunct irrigation system hanging from the ceiling.

Now, an aquaponics system installed by Shugrue's forestry and agri-science class and aided by the Farm and Garden Club has given the building some new life.

The program is the first in a series of small steps taken by Principal Kristen St. Germain to gauge the feasibility of an agri-science program at Wheeler.

She hopes to retain North Stonington students that might otherwise be drawn to an agri-science program like the one at Ledyard High School.

Her five-year plan would involve eventually adding another teacher to the program, but also considering a number of other decisions about how the program would distinguish itself from others, such as by using the farms in North Stonington to create an internship program.

"We want to see how the community accepts (where) we're going," she said.

Last summer, St. Germain encouraged teachers to find ways to use the greenhouse for science education, as the school's labs were in need of upgrades. 

The aquaponics idea emerged "in a brainstorm" a few weeks before school between her and Shugrue.

"I'm going to call you our pioneers," St. Germain said to the students in an afternoon class Dec. 15. 

After a briefing by Shugrue, the students took up their assignments — gingerly placing the tiny lettuce seedlings between two strips of plastic media and then slowly pressing them together in narrow vertical columns. 

These "towers" are hung from the ceiling in order to capture as much sunlight as possible in the small greenhouse, and are the last step in a system that begins with koi fish in an elevated black basin.

The process begins as the fish produce waste, which travels into a tray populated by nitrification bacteria.

Those bacteria convert the waste into nitrates and nitrites, which are pumped up and into the towers, providing nutrients for the plants in the plastic medium.

"We had to start somewhere, which has led to slowly building it into the curriculum," St. Germain said.

Many of the students placed in the semester-long forestry class were skeptical at first. Or as Shugrue said, "the distance between concept and reality was very far."

Forestry student Tristan Duvall was more blunt.

"I had been told that forestry wasn't that good," he said in an interview. He initially considered dropping the class, but was talked into staying by Shugrue.

"I'm really happy I did," he said. "This is really fun; it's a lot different from traditional science classes, you just straight up get to go out there and do it yourself."

Duvall noted that he and most of the other students had never heard of aquaponics before the first day of class, but once Shugrue divided the system into tasks for the students to complete, it became easier to understand.

"Like in class, I wasn't for this, I didn't care, but once we got here, I started to like it," student Kendall Sullivan said. "It's something to look forward to, too. It's better than sitting in the classroom and being bored."

However, not all of the tasks can be completed by the forestry class. 

For example, they wanted a table that was strong enough to hold several hundred pounds of water and fish.

Other classes and clubs used this as an opportunity. Students from David Bradanini's Materials Processing class helped frame the table, and Noel Devine's Farm and Garden club helped plant and maintain the seedlings.

"Everyone is eager to be involved in some way," Shugrue said.

The nitrogen cycle is the central scientific application of the aquaponics system, and Shugrue said the system drives lessons about fertilizer and industrial farming, greenhouse gases, land use and water shortages.

He also hopes that other classes, like biology and chemistry, also will use the system.

Junior Glen Edwards already has taken the next step and plans to conduct an independent study of the system next semester. He will measure the levels of ammonia, nitrate and nitrite in the system as he and Shugrue fine-tune variables like the rate of flow and the amount of food for the fish.

And that kind of enthusiasm gets to the core of what Shugrue hopes to achieve.

"When I see the kids kinda step away and say 'I got this, Shugrue' ... when they're so motivated that you almost become obsolete, I feel like I've done my job," he said.

n.lynch@theday.com

Twitter: @_natelynch

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