College students learn fish farming

September 10, 2010 (CHICAGO)

Chicago State University is the newest home to an aquaponics facility. Administrators say it will not only provide a new teaching tool for students, but may also help ease the grip of a food desert on their South Side neighborhood.

Hundreds of tilapia are getting their daily feed at Chicago State University. The aquaponics facility features four 750-gallon tanks. There are also six hydroponic grow beds, where fruit, vegetables and herbs are planted in water instead of the ground.

"The nutrient-enriched water from the fish actually serves as the fertilizer for the plants. So it's very, it's organic," said Alison Gise Johnson, PhD, director of science outreach.

All of the nutrients as well as the waste products that the fish create are absorbed by the plants. Then, the clean water is recirculated back into the fish tanks. Nothing is wasted, but so much is gained.

"The reason we think this is necessary is because we live in what we call a 'food desert.' ... As part of our mission as a university serving the community, it's to involve the community in developing food, producing food and consuming food that's highly nutritious and to know what nutritious food is," said Floyd Banks, PhD, CSU Dept. of Biological Sciences chair.

One of the people helping to spearhead this project was 6th Ward Alderman Fredrynna Lyle.

"Chicago State serves a community and the community is the South Side and the south suburbs and so young people...they'll all be able to come over here and take the opportunities to volunteer, to help in the growing of the vegetables," Lyle said.

Young people like John Packard. He visited the college recently on a high school field trip. Packard was so impressed that he got involved right away.

"I do a series of tests on the water and on the plants," said Packard. "We run tests for ph-alkalinity, dissolved oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen. We run tests that are vital for the fish and the plants for their health and make sure that if their lacking, we supplement to make sure they are on point."

Some Chicago State students say the new facility is yet another source of pride.

"Just to help the community get involved with environmental science, being more conscious of the way we eat. We're kind of like pioneers for the Chicago area as far as urban ecology," said senior Jameka McElroy.

This aquaponics facility is the first phase of a larger plan. Chicago State University also has three acres of land nearby that they will be opening next spring for sustainable fuel research and community gardening.

The aquaponics facility is open for public tours.

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