High School Aquaculture Challenge program kicks off

Competition engages students in a real-world, hands-on science and business experience.

Lake Superior State University Professor Dr. Barbara Evans describes to high school students a model of sustainable aquaculture. Photo: Kacie Ferguson
Lake Superior State University Professor Dr. Barbara Evans describes to high school students a model of sustainable aquaculture. Photo: Kacie Ferguson

In 2015, Dr. Barbara Evans of Lake Superior State University  (LSSU) had a vision -- to utilize the wonders of aquaculture to engage students from across the state in a multi-disciplinary competition. This vision was realized in 2016 with the first Aquaculture Challenge competition. The competition is based around creating a mini-fish and plant farm within the classroom. Students will design an aquaculture system, monitor that system using automated sensors, and create a business plan for how their system could be a model for an actual aquaculture business. The program was initially funded by a Michigan STEM Partnership grant. In this second year, with funds from the North Central Regional Aquaculture Center and Michigan Sea Grant, the program is able to be provided again to schools around the state.

The competition kicked off this year on Jan. 20, 2017, with an open house event at the campus of LSSU. Students and teachers from as far away as Detroit and as close as Sault Ste. Marie attended this informational kickoff event. The open house started with a tour of an aquaculture facility, located in the Aquatic Research Lab at LSSU. This facility has been hatching and rearing Atlantic salmon for 30 years with the purpose of enhancing the local fishery and training LSSU students in the techniques of fish culture. After the facility tour, the aquaculture challenge participants made their way to campus where they learned about the three main aspects of the challenge. The first is building an aquaponics system using tanks, grow racks, PVC pipe and water pumps. The idea is to create an innovative system in which fish can be grown and the waste water from the fish tank can be cycled through a plant growing system. The plants will take up not only some of the water but also the nutrients that are found in the fish waste. This is known as an aquaponics system combining both the components of hydroponics and aquaculture. The second component of the challenge for students is using computer coding skills to program automated Arduino sensors. These sensors can monitor the growing conditions within the system, and can alert students to any potential changes or tweaks that need to be made to the system. Finally, students learned about the business program Canvanizer, which helps them create a viable business model using their aquaponics system design.

The open house wrapped up with teams each receiving a kit of equipment to take back to their schools. Each school will then have teams of students create their aquaponics system, program their sensors, and draft a business model. Teams will return to LSSU on May 5, 2017, to show what progress they have made. The competition day will include a panel of judges who will evaluate the students’ programing, business model, and system design. Awards will be granted in each category as well as for best overall team.

The Aquaculture Challenge program is truly a multi-disciplinary event and almost every student can find something that intrigues them. Overall it engages students in a real-world, hands-on science and business experience unlike anything else.

Schools and teachers interested in participating in this, or next year’s competition, should contact Elliot Nelson at elliotne@msu.edu or (906) 635-2845. 

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and its MSU Extension, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.

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