Fishy classroom at McHenry High teaches more than growing plants

Aquaponics lab set to offer students more in environmental science

McHenry High School student Jakub Pietkiewicz, 17, talks about how the school's Environmental Club and Advanced Placement environmental science classes are using aquaponics to learn about water and closed systems on March 22, 2023.

Why did the fish die?

That is a question McHenry High School student Jakub Pietkiewicz hopes he and his biology teacher, Steven Levon, can find an answer to. The tilapia was found dead in the school’s aquaponics lab on Wednesday morning.

The tilapia was not part of the biology curriculum. Instead it is one of a dozen used in the Upper Campus’s new aquaponics project in the school’s greenhouse.

The greenhouse is part of the Center for Science, Technology and Industry at McHenry High School’s Upper Campus. Opened to students in 2021 and paid for through a successful 2018 bond referendum, it took a little longer for the aquaponics portion to get up and flowing, Advanced Placement Environmental Sciences teacher Kaley Freund said.

“There were some kinks with the water. We had to figure out the clarification, where the fish poop goes,” as well as getting softened water into the system, Freund said. “There were some plumbing issues.”

There was also some learning for the teachers, which variety of fish to use, Science Division Chairman Tim Beagle said. They could raise either koi or tilapia, he said.

Megan Stephens and Alyssa Thomas, both 17-year-old juniors at McHenry High School’s Upper Campus, test water in the tilapia tank on March 22, 2023, as part of the school's aquaponics project.

The science staff also “wanted to make sure the system was set up for success” with the right professional development and understanding of the system before introducing it to students, Beagle said.

Those working with system reached out aquaponic grower Tribe Country Farms in Woodstock to learn more about the system.

“They explained to us how it works,” Beagle said.

The new building has allowed us to extend outside of just the AP classroom.

—  McHenry High School Science Division Chairman Tim Beagle

Once set up, the system is relatively simple. Plants, including lettuce, cabbage and micro greens, are planted on a raft floating on the water tanks, separate from the fish tank. The fish waste – mostly ammonia - is filtered so plant-feeding nitrates remain.

“The only input is fish food, about one time a day,” Freund said.

Students are doing more with the lab than feeding the fish and planting seeds, Freund said.

They learn how to test the waster for dissolved oxygen, the pH level and nutrients, among other tests, to ensure both the plants and fish are healthy.

“The new building has allowed us to extend outside of just the AP classroom,” Beagle said.

The Environmental Science Club, members of which do not have to be in the Advanced Placement course, can also help in the greenhouse.

Megan Stephens and Alyssa Thomas, both 17-year-old juniors, have been helping, planting the lettuce, feeding the fish, checking the pH levels and logging their results.

“We do as much as we can,” Thomas said. “We check how the fish are doing.”

Pietkiewicz had already resuscitated one of the fish – “not with mouth to mouth” – when it was found floating upside down in the tank. That was before a dead fish was found this week.

The deceased fish was smaller than the others – all male fish to prevent propagation – and looked a little different from them too. Pietkiewicz said he wants to review what those differences in the biology lab and dissect the fish to see how its internal organs look.

“There is a lot of trial and error to figure out,” Pietkiewicz said.

Aquaponics is popular in urban areas because it provides both a protein source through the fish, as well as fresh produce in places where land is otherwise not always available.

“You don’t need farmland” for it, Beagle said.

School staff is still determining how the food can be used in the McHenry schools, either in the school’s culinary program or donated to a food pantry, he said.

There may be other avenues in the future that allow other students to learn from the greenhouse program, Freund said, including how to compost waste and culinary students learning about where food comes.

“We can branch out to other curriculum areas as well,” she said.