BW’s Rines’ first-year aquaponics project receives CTC Chemistry Project Work award
By LENNY C. LEPOLA
News Assistant Managing Editor
At the end of last school year, 2011 Big Walnut High School graduate Don Hutchinson ended his tenure as the driving force behind the aquaponics project in the high school Ag Science room, handing the project off to then freshman, now sophomore, Jesse Rines.
The project began as an aquaculture endeavor five years ago when Ag Science teacher Jeni Reely purchased a 400-gallon tank and airlift pump system with a $2,500 Innovations in Teaching Grant. Innovations in Teaching grants were internal grants awarded by the school district to fund projects that fell outside normal curriculum funding; the grants were eliminated as a cost-saving measure following the onset of the current recession in 2008.
In taking the aquaponics project over this year, Rines stocked the tank with 120 bluegills he acquired from Bob Grimm at Catch of the Day, and placed 18 slow-bolt lettuce plants on a hydro platform floating on the water surface.
The aquaponics operation is close to a seamless loop — fish and plants serving each other’s needs with very little waste — that has potential real-world applications, especially in third world countries seeking low cost and low-tech ways to grow food.
Rines said the lettuce balances the chemistry in the tank via the nitrogen cycle: ammonia is turned into nitrites, the nitrites are turned into nitrates, the nitrates build up and the plants on the platform use up the nitrates, making the chemical environment better for the fish.
“I monitored ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, pH, dissolved oxygen and temperature, plus measured the growth of the lettuce the fish,” Rines explained. “I really had my own ecosystem going; I was in control of a mini environment and it ran really well.”
Rines said he thought in previous years there were too many fish in the project tank, 200 yellow perch during the previous year, 350 the year before that.
“I wanted fewer fish so I had to put less food in, making it easier to control the environment,” Rines said. “A lot of times commercial fish farmers have to intervene. I never had any problems where I had to step in and chemically alter anything.”
This year’s aquaponics project was not problem-free, Rines said. He started with 3-inch long fish less than a year old, some fish grew, some didn’t. Next year he plans to split the tank between large and small fish to find out why some fish are not growing as much as others.
But it was a learning year, and the aquaponics project served as a Science Fair project. Rines wrote a report on the aquaponics tank Science Fair project and sent it to the Columbus Technical Council (CTC) where it earned a Chemistry Project Work Award at the CTC’s April 18 annual banquet.
“The CTC chemistry award was not what I originally signed up for; the award was based on the paper portion of the project, honoring excellence in a chemistry related project,” Rines said. “The CTC award was awesome. I put a lot of work into this since the end of September, it’s good to get recognized for the work I’ve done; and it was interesting to see the other winning projects at the CTC banquet, the things they’re looking for with research projects. It’s also good to know there’s a lot more awards out there I can apply for.”
Big Walnut High School science teacher Matt Wallschlaeger said he was afraid the aquaponics project might evaporate when Hutchinson graduated, but Rines has proven that he has both the interest and the ability to take the research project forward.
“I’m looking forward to how creative Jesse’s going to be with it,” Wallschlaeger said. “The CTC recognition will help motivate him, but now he has to dive in for the next two years in creative ways to make the project different. This has been a learning year for Jesse, but he thrives in knowing his work has some value.”
Both Rines and Wallschlaeger noted that Don Hutchinson, who is attending Wittenberg University in Springfield, maintains an interest in the aquaponics project. Hutchinson and Rines text about project problems, and Hutchinson was in town last weekend to help Rines empty and clean the tank for the project’s summer downtime.
And the fish? Not to worry. They’re destined for retirement at a private pond.