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Abigail Willey uses a tool to make sure lettuce seeds have a proper place to germinate once they're planted Thursday at a new aquaponics lab at Edgerton High School.

EDGERTON

Edgerton High School students this year are running a laboratory that raises fish and grows lettuce, and they consider that just part of going to school.

For the first time, juniors and seniors can enroll in a class that uses the school district’s new facility for aquaponics, which involves growing plants in a soil-less system with water, teacher Tony DeWar said.

“There has been nothing but excitement and anticipation to actually get this system up and running,” Superintendent Dennis Pauli said.

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Funding for the facility was donated by the late Bill Wartmann, a longtime supporter of education in the district.

The first aquaponics class last fall helped install equipment in the lab, but the curriculum was more classroom-based. In spring, students began to set up the lab to get it running.

This fall’s class is the first to use the lab since its completion in April.

The lab has four 110-gallon fish tanks filled with tilapia. Students feed the fish, and the fish waste gets funneled through pipes and tanks that separate out the solid waste.

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A tilapia swims in a fish tank in an aquaponics lab at Edgerton High School on Thursday. Waste products from the fish help grow lettuce elsewhere in the lab.

Bacteria convert the waste products—ammonia and nitrite—into nitrate, which is used to grow lettuce in plant beds. The lettuce grows twice as fast in the lab as it does in soil, DeWar said.

The class has already sold lettuce to the high school’s food service program and plans to reach out to local restaurants and other schools. Some lettuce has been donated to local food pantries. Any money the students earn helps run the lab.

The students use no pesticides or chemicals, preferring all-natural pest control. They do almost all of the maintenance and troubleshooting on the system.

“It’s a sustainable way to grow foods. … It’s an organic product,” DeWar said. “It’s a cool little, very neat system.”

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Sam Enger sprays water into an aquaponics fish tank to remove food from the edges of the tank Thursday at Edgerton High School.

Students learn about plant and fish biology in aquaponics class, but the real education comes from the hands-on application. DeWar said water chemistry, life cycles, bacteria and chemicals are among the subjects they focus on.

“They get to apply what they’re learning in class. When it comes to science, kids always ask why they have to learn this, and here’s why.”

Edgerton junior Abigail Willey enrolled in aquaponics to prepare herself for what she might study after graduation.

“I have a future interest in horticulture and microbiology, and I figured the best place to start is the actual agricultural classes here at my school,” she said.

Pauli agreed that real-life experience makes the investment in the lab worthwhile.

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Casey Tarkenton glances at notes to determine if lettuce seeds planted in the accelerated germination area are ready to be transported to the raft system Thursday at Edgerton High School’s aquaponics lab.

“It’s better preparation for life beyond high school. They’re doing real-life work and getting experience if they were to ever have an interest in getting into an industry like this,” he said. “It’s really a science lab for them to get hands-on experience.”

At first, Willey wasn’t sure what to expect, but she said she’s learning a lot.

“It’s interesting to know the nitrification process and what needs both the fish and plants have to meet,” she said, “and especially in the food industry, how aquaponics is beneficial in growing plants for human consumption.”

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Abigail Willey picks up seeds from a dish and plants them one by one Thursday at Edgerton High School.

Senior Brice Christianson said he likes learning about the business side of the aquaponics lab and how it helps pay for itself.

Remembering to do all the tasks needed to run the lab can be challenging, he said, but he still recommends the class to friends.

“A lot of my friends who say they have open spots, I’ll definitely recommend that they take aquaponics,” Christianson said. “It’s so fun. I’m having a great time.”

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