Clinton Middle School mystery: Award-winning aquaponics lab faces pH challenges

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Saturday, November 16, 2013

CLINTON--It sounds like a Nancy Drew novel: The Middle School Mystery.

Or maybe it's more like a Lemony Snicket story, one that begins badly, with a school of fish, bellies up.

Either way, this mystery is real, not fictional, and the students at Clinton Middle School hope to solve it with help from freshwater detectives from the UW-Milwaukee.

We'd like say it started on a dark and stormy night, but it actually started last year when Clinton Middle School Science teacher Erika Stewart established an aquaponics lab.

Stewart developed the project with fellow teachers to improve students hands-on learning and knowledge of ecosystems, water chemistry, life cycles and how to work together to solve problems.

In a functioning aquaponics system, wastewater from the fish tank flows into a tray where plants and vegetables can be grown. The plants clean the water and that water can be cycled back in the fish tank.

The school maintenance staff transformed a storage room into a lab, and Stewart, along with fellow science teacher Andrew Feldpausch, set up the equipment.

But no matter what water they used in the tanks—well water, tap water, water from Feldpausch's home in Kenosha, specially filtered water—after a few days the pH would spike to about nine.

Now, as we all remember from middle school science class—or recently looked up on the Internet—pH is a marker used to describe the acidity or alkalinity of a fluid. All those baking soda and vinegar volcanoes we made in grade school were intended to teach us those lessons.

Fish cannot live—at least not for very long—in water with a pH of nine.

Because teachers wanted to harvest fish and vegetables from the system, they didn't want to add additional chemicals.

Stewart and Feldpausch tested water for every common chemical; they tested for the uncommon ones; they considered the tanks and the gravel. All factors from the obvious to the obscure, were examined.

Stumped, they turned to a new set of experts: Their own students.

Students were asked research the problem, and come up with experiments to test their theories.

“They thought we knew the answer and weren't telling them,” Stewart said.

Students looked for other experts, too, and as a result, Fred Binkowski, senior scientist at the UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences found himself in a tiny classroom filled with fish tanks and chattering adolescents.

For backup, Binkowski brought along chemist Henry Hebert and senior research specialists Jeffrey “Moose” Nuese, both from the School of Freshwater Sciences.

After quizzing Stewart and Feldpausch, the men from Milwaukee made several recommendations to improve operations, but didn't have an immediate solution for the mystery.

Especially perplexing: That even water from outside of Clinton was affected by the changes.

 “That, in itself, makes it kind of odd,” Binkowski said. “It could be something in the environment.”

Hebert found himself returning to Milwaukee with a jug of Clinton water to test.

Back in the classroom, students shared their theories regarding the pH levels of their fish tanks:

—Allison Carter: Excess carbon dioxide in the air interacts with the oxygen in the water, altering water chemistry.

—Mitchell Ewers: Too many fish in a tank. The rise in ammonia from fish waste changes the water chemistry. Logan Fjalstad had a similar idea.

—Crystal Buchanan: New tanks are more likely to affect water chemistry than seasoned tanks.

One team of eighth grade students that includes Nicole Chrislaw, Sofi Gonstead and Tristan Loback are building an air filter to place over the top of a tank. The filter will have interchangeable filter mediums.

“With science, it's got to be hands-on, it's got to be real world,” said Stewart. “Students did their own research for this, there's a sense of ownership for them.”

As for the mystery?

Stay tuned to this newspaper. When we know, you'll know.


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