McHenry High School's student-written and -edited newspaper

The McHenry Messenger

McHenry High School's student-written and -edited newspaper

The McHenry Messenger

McHenry High School's student-written and -edited newspaper

The McHenry Messenger

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Something fishy

Students in MCHS’s AP Environmental Science constructed a soil-less garden that runs on fish

Last school year, Tim Beagle, science division chair and environmental science teacher, introduced an innovative and unique method of farming to MCHS’s greenhouse: aquaponics. 

Aquaponics is a sustainable form of agriculture that combines aquacultureraising fishwith hydroponicscultivating plants using water rather than soil. The system was assembled and has been maintained alongside his students. The group has been nurturing the complex gardening system for several semesters, utilizing live fish to grow plants. 

“Our aquaponics system that we have set up is a small-scale version of it, but basically, it’s a way to grow food, both animal sources of food and plant-based sources of food, in a closed ecosystem,” said Beagle.

The system operates on completely natural processes, mimicking conditions observed in nature in lakes, ponds, and other bodies of water. Aquaponics relies on the natural fertilizer produced by the fish. This provides the necessary nourishment for plant growth, simulating the presence of soil. 

“Bacteria that’s naturally in the fish gut starts to break-down and decompose all of the fish waste, and turns that into nitrates that then the plants, on a separate part of the system…uptake through their roots,” said Beagle. “So, you are growing plants in water with the nutrientsthe phosphorus, and nitrogen and so forththat they would use coming out of the soil, but this you’re just using through the water.”

The nutrient-rich water created by the bacteria and fish waste supports the opportunity for plant life, while the plants help filter the water. The water continuously circulates to keep the environment clean. 

The group has been working on this project since last school year, but has seen several bumps in the road. Currently, the garden has no fish and nothing growing in it. Last year, they experienced a major setback when struggles arose with the health of the system’s fish.

“It was up and running last year and we had fish in it and we were growing plants. Throughout the course of last year, we noticed that the fish were kind of starving to death,” said Beagle. “There wasn’t really an explanation because everyday you check pH levels, you check nitrogen levels, you check dissolved oxygen all these different factors that can affect the balance of the ecosystem.”

After performing biopsies on the tilapia, it was discovered that the issue was not their fault, but actually a problem with the salt levels in the school’s water. With the source of the problem pinpointed, the group devised a solution and plan to get the garden back up and running.

“It took the entire first semester this year to get it done,” said Beagle. “We have installed a reverse osmosis system which takes our school water, that comes from the city, but goes through the salt tanks of our school. It goes to our reverse osmosis system and we reclean it out and take everything out of the water. It’s completely pH balanced and there’s nothing in the water; 100% pure.”

Aquaponics can sustain all types of plants, but in the early phases of their experimental garden, the group stuck to more simple endeavors.

“We started out very simply with lettuce last year, because…it’s hard to kill it,” said Beagle. “You can grow anything in there…They just have a lower tolerance level for any kind of changes, and as we’re kind of new to this, we wanted to do [lettuce] because they’re nutrient dense and hardy.” 

As an environmental science teacher, Beagle passionately teaches about sustainability and hopes to educate his students about being environmentally friendly and conscious of resources.

“It’s not just from an ideological standpoint, like a consumer society, but actually cultivating and taking care of the land that we have and the food we have and being mindful about it. I’m trying to get people interested in it,” said Beagle.

Establishing an aquaponics farm for students to collaborate on managing has been a great learning opportunity so far for the students in Environmental Science and other students at MCHS who are interested in the environment. The group hopes the aquaponics system will soon be back up and running.

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