TRAVERSE CITY — A shining geodesic dome nurtures plants, students and the environment in a space tucked behind Grand Traverse Academy.
Students are breaking educational ground amongst flourishing peas and lettuce, seedling tomatoes and flowers.
“One of the exciting points of the class is this is a rare thing, completely student-driven,” said senior Christian Stegmann.
Matt Drost, the high school’s life science teacher, is guiding students. In turn they guide him, as the class built and now manages aquaponic and hydroponic systems, as well as a small traditional earth garden.
When fish died last year in the aquaponic setup, students dissected them, isolated a parasite and researched its cause and management. They then designed and implemented changes to the system to avoid future problems.
“It’s a very Socratic method of teaching. I have the questions, not the answers,” Drost said.
Part of the challenge is that there is little or no information about creating and running such a small aquaponic or hydroponic operation.
“For the scale we’re doing it in, as a hobbyist, there’s no one helping you,” Stegmann said.
Drost created the class in part because of student interest and also because he appreciates high-touch, real world instruction. For the past two school years, he taught popular shorter elective sessions on various methods of intensive, sustainable agriculture.
“Student interest was huge; that gave me the idea of taking it a step further,” Drost said.
Aquaponics was the most popular of those electives. That choice sparked a greenhouse interior design with about a third of the space devoted to a compact working system, plus a pool for a future, larger one.
In the smaller system, a tank of hybrid bluegills swim, unaware that their wastewater feeds the plants. The plants then filter the water after extracting nutrients. The clean water is returned to the fish tank, completing the cycle. The system also incorporates compost from the school — food and paper waste — that nurtures worms that later feed the fish.
Local farmer Mike McHugh of Cedar Sol Hydro Farm lends a hand, and students also tend multiple stacked and shaped hydroponic setups. In addition to growing their own plants — they’ve already harvested lettuce — they planted seedlings for McHugh. Later this spring, they will transplant them at the farm.
“Some of the advantages of hydroponics are that you can do it anywhere,” Stegmann said. “You can stack vertically and do some really incredible things in an apartment, for example. And it’s completely self-sustaining.”
Trial and error helped students discover optimal designs for the hydroponic systems. Current systems include stackable and zigzag design and a more traditional adjacent row design.
“Building the systems and seeing what works and what doesn’t, we’ve had to figure out angles and flow rates to see what helped the plants grow best,” said Kelvin Smith, a senior at Grand Traverse Academy.
They aimed for self-sufficiency, but winter cloud cover necessitated an electrical heat source for the 700- to 800-square-foot greenhouse. Solar power drives the facility’s cooling fans.
“Watching this greenhouse being built, we built a lot of it, and actually growing something is really cool,” Smith said.