Aquaponics at East LA College
If you’re not a science professor, the term “aquaponics” might be a bit of a head-scratcher. Aquaculture we hear about a lot, and hydroponics a little. But aquaponics? In fact, it's just the combination of the first two in a symbiotic environment. In other words, raising fish and plants at the same time. In a traditional aquaculture system the fish excretions raise the toxicity level of the water and have to be removed as discharge, but in aquaponics the water is fed into a hydroponic system where the by-products are broken down by bacteria and then used as nutrients by the plants. The cleaned water is then circulated back to the aquaculture system. If widely practiced, aquaponics would allow for increases in food production, as the space demands of traditional agriculture are much reduced.
Sound intriguing? If you’d like to see for yourself, visit East LA College, where such a system was implemented just this past summer. East’s Aquaponics Garden Science Learning Center is now only the second such garden lab in the California community colleges. The program is part of the Jardin de STEM Project, which aims to increase the number of Hispanic students pursuing STEM careers, and the center will be used by faculty to teach biology, chemistry, and the physics of food science, among other STEM subjects. In fact, professors of engineering, architecture, chemistry, and geography are already incorporating garden lab activities into their courses. Other discipines will follow, and eventually a lesson plan manual will be developed.
The aquaponics system is being maintained by students, with one of their main tasks being the careful monitoring of the water in both systems. To help them get it all right, three faculty volunteers are assisting: entomologist Dr. Kirk Olsen; geologist and fish farming specialist, Randy Adsit; and master gardener Mark Swicegood.
Director Robert West tells us that the garden will provide vegetables for East’s ASU food pantry, which helps to meet lower income students’ needs. In fact, students are now harvesting their fall crop of cucumber, zucchini, onions, peppers, lettuce, and tomatoes in order to make way for winter crops.
The Jardin de STEM Project is funded by a large Title V grant, and the Roybal Foundation partnered with East on the center. West also noted how helpful the administration and the Facilities Dept. have been in making the garden lab a reality. As for the future, he says “We hope to establish our own practices and generate continued improvement in collaboration with other such projects in our region.” A trip to see the aquaponics systems at the Huntington Gardens is upcoming.