Students team with professors to advance aquaponics

Even though it has existed for centuries, aquaponics, or the combination of raising fish and growing plants together in water, has only in recent years grown in popularity as society continues to move toward more locally produced food and vegetation.

In aquaponics, fish waste provides an organic food source for plants, and plants naturally filter water for fish. Many people today view aquaponics as a more sustainable and environmentally conscious form of raising food and plants.

Harrisburg University has an aquaponics system of its own set up at Steelton-Highspire Junior/Senior High School. It provides high school and HU students a place to gain real-world experience in this emerging field. And it gives students the ability to conduct hands-on aquaponics research.

One trail-blazing research project students are engaged in is dubbed the “Comparison of Media to Determine Optimal Growth in Aquaponics,” launched just prior to the start of the spring semester.

Recipients of a Harrisburg University Presidential Research Grant, Biology Professor, Dr. Rachel Fogle, and Analytical Chemistry Professor, Dr. Andrea Nagy, have teamed with students on the project that involves the first systematic study of growth options within the aquaponics industry. The research, which will be shared within the industry, aims to determine the best conditions for growth in aquaponics.

Currently, the only growth medium used in the HU aquaponics system is Rockwool. There are a variety of other grow options available, however, which could provide better nutrient profiles, aeration, and/or water retention to facilitate seedling growth and improve the yield of nutrients, Dr. Fogle said. 

So far, data collection and observations are underway. HU Environmental Science student Jordan Brown has completed background research on aquaponics systems and is working under Dr. Fogle’s guidance to compare a variety of growth agents, including Rockwool, FlexiPlugs, Horticubes, and Grow Grips. A total of 10 different crops have been selected for comparison during the first round of data collection. Brown goes to the greenhouse on a regular basis to document the growth rate of each grow media, Dr. Fogle said.

Three other HU students, Biotech majors Allison Bernard, Samantha Delvalle-Trinh, and James Shuler, will work with Drs. Nagy and Fogle to measure a variety of nutritional parameters by using a variety of chemical analysis techniques. The collected data will provide a comparison of which growth agents, and/or which growth environments, provide the highest nutritional content among the crops.

In addition to providing real-world experience in aquaponics to students, Dr. Fogle said it will require them to work collaboratively to interpret and present their findings.

Findings from the studies also could inform and change community supported agriculture, she said.

“The results from this study will help inform decisions pertaining to optimal growth conditions for current and future research questions, and it will provide a foundational knowledge to the greater aquaponics industry,” Dr. Fogle said. “The results will advance the understanding of controlled environmental ecosystem management and implementation of optimal conditions for the sustainability of community supported agriculture.”

About Harrisburg University

Accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Harrisburg University is a private non-profit university offering bachelor and graduate degree programs in science, technology, and math fields. For more information on the University’s affordable demand-driven undergraduate and graduate programs, call 717.901.5146 or email, Connect@HarrisburgU.edu.