Sunday | June 26, 2016
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Cultivating cooperation Kona eatery benefits from school aquaponics system

What started as a science project at West Hawaii Explorations Academy has blossomed into a unique partnership with a local restaurant.

An aquaponics system sprouted this fall, created by a dozen seventh- and eighth-grade students, with the guidance of WHEA teacher Amy Cerrone and mentor Stephen Velonza.

WHEA is a mostly outdoor public charter school located at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority and its curriculum is project based. Instead of just taking math, science and the other disciplines, students work on various hands-on, self-selected projects that encompass everything and relate to real world problems, Cerrone said. The students then do presentations and write papers based on the findings of their projects, which contribute to their grades, she added.

An aquaponics system is a type of food production in which fish and plants are raised together, using the same water. WHEA’s system consists of a water tank, which houses tilapia, with a grow bed on top, a pump and piping. The fish wastewater is utilized as a nutrient source for plants grown in a soil-less culture. The system uses a flood and drain technique, also known as ebb and flow. This technique consists of basically flooding the grow bed, filled with plants and gravel, with the fish wastewater and then draining it back again into the water tank, said eighth-grader Tanner Legler.

“Building the system and finding the best way to maintain it has been fun,” he said. “It’s also been great learning about the process of growing plants and doing experimentation and figuring out solutions to getting better outputs.”

For instance, the algae off the rocks must be removed regularly. To make the cleanup more efficient, the students reworked the grow bed. They decided to use baskets, which were filled with rocks and plants, as well as made it much easier to clean the entire system. Instead of just discarding the algae, seventh-grader Alana Murrill is conducting an experiment to see if it offers any benefits towards the growth of other plants like broccoli, already planted in school’s garden.

WHEA’s aquaponics system is providing fresh food, life and business skills, and a sense of pride for the students.

“We have found that our aquaponics system grows crops about four times faster than our school garden. We attribute that success to the fish poop, which is providing extra nutrients,” said eighth-grader Nolan Grossman. “Besides creating healthy foods and doing problem solving, it’s been great seeing the rewards of our work and finding a market for our products. It also makes us feel good to be able to help someone in our community.”

Green onion, cilantro and lettuce have been donated twice to Patricio’s Mexican Taqueria, which used the herbs and vegetables in its dishes. As a thank you, the Kailua-Kona restaurant recently provided the students will a free meal. The WHEA students hope to make one more delivery before the end of the school year.

Rena Grimaldo, co-owner of Patricio’s Mexican Taqueria, said she’s really happy about being the recipient of the students’ small, but generous bounty. Grimaldo said she and her husband, Patrick Mitchell, are very community-minded and try their best to partner with area farmers to supply fresh, local ingredients. She likes how the partnership with the school gives the students a sense of purpose and they can instantly see and savor the results of their labor.