An ah-ha! moment a couple of years ago for Ivanna Eudora Kean science teacher Kirk Lewis is taking shape today in the form of a soon-to-be completed campus construction project whose mission promises to transform the high school’s curriculum.
It was two years ago that Lewis came to his boss, inspired by a course he took at the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) on St. Croix, and told her that Kean needed to build a facility for students to produce and harvest hundreds of pounds of fish and hundreds of pounds of vegetables every few weeks.
Far fetched? Not for Kean’s principal, Dr. Sharon Ann McCollum, who saw yet another opportunity for experiential learning, and who signed on with complete enthusiasm, but without complete funding.
Now, thanks to the intervention of a local Economic Development Commission company, the school is launching a dynamic across-the-curriculum teaching tool that will nourish more than just minds, and that serves as a testament to the success of, and potential for, public-private sector collaboration.
“I guess you can say God answers prayers,” McCollum said, “and that’s when Celtic Therapeutics stepped up.”
Under McCollum’s stewardship, and in partnership with the East End-based Celtic Therapeutics Management LLLP, Kean is establishing an aquaponics production facility, which combines aquaculture, or fish farming, with hydroponics, plant farming without soil. Aquaponics uses the raising of fish as a platform to fertilize and grow vegetables exclusively in water in a much smaller space, and at a much greater pace than soil-raised plants.
Lewis anticipates harvesting more than 400 pounds of fish and hundreds of pounds of vegetables every six weeks. For students, it’s a chance to not just enhance their skills in science, math, business and culinary arts, among other fields, but they’ll be able to apply those skills first-hand.
“If children and adolescents get a great view of the beauty of science and see how to apply it, it would please us to no end,” said Dr. Peter B. Corr, managing general partner at Celtic, who holds a doctorate in molecular biology and pharmacology.
Celtic is a global investment firm that funds new medicines for major or life-threatening diseases through their human clinical trials in order to bring the successful medicines to the marketplace. Corr is hoping the aquaponics project will inspire young people to dedicate themselves to science.
“They’re wonderful paying jobs, and people can become passionate about what they do because of the impact on society as a whole,” Corr said.
Celtic’s initial investment in Kean began with financing the refurbishment of the school’s clinic, an endeavor now underway. When the school found itself with $22,000 worth of aquaponics tanks courtesy of legislative funding, but no where to locate the tanks, let alone funds to finish Lewis’s proposed aquaponics system, McCollum turned to Celtic again.
Not only did the project dovetail with Celtic’s primary charitable interest, education, but as Corr’s partner Stephen Evans-Freke explained, it represented the best kind of learning.
“We have to give kids the information, the tools and the mindset to be entrepreneurial and create their own businesses,” said Evans-Freke, a graduate of and advisor to Cambridge University. “Children learning math, for instance, often see a very dry useless subject until they are presented with a real-world application that actually makes sense to them, such as this project, where they learn the economics of sustainable farming.”
The aquaponics system is housed in a nearly completed structure, financed largely by Celtic, and located at the end of the school’s western-most parking lot. There, students will be raising and harvesting tilapia, a rapidly growing fresh-water fish, that will be living in four, 300-gallon fish tanks. An estimated 400 tilapia will be harvested every six weeks after growing to one-and-a-half to two pounds. At the same time, a crop of plants will be harvested from holes drilled in Styrofoam rafts floating in a series of 22-foot-long tanks. Some 600 heads of lettuce are expected to get plucked from their Styrofoam housing every few weeks, in addition to cucumbers and other vegetables, as well as an assortment of herbs.
This system, according to Lewis, was developed at UVI and has been adopted by countries around the world as an energy-efficient way of maximizing food production. Only two pumps are required – a water and air pump. The water from the fishery gets filtered for waste before it circulates into the rafts where it provides vital nitrates and nitrites to the plants, then swirls its way back into the fish tanks. Water is replaced only as it evaporates.
Students at Kean will be involved in every phase of the aquaponics system: doing daily testing of the water to ensure proper temperature and PH levels, maintaining the mechanics of the facility, planting the seedlings, and cleaning the fish. Along the way, there are calculations to be made in terms of the quantity and weight of the harvested fish and vegetables. Culinary arts students will be enlisted to convert the harvests into healthy lunches. McCollum said the project will also serve as subject matter for essays in English and Caribbean History classes.
As the system reaches its stride, Lewis said business students will be helping with the production, marketing, and advertising of what he anticipates will become a full-scale business servicing farmers’ markets, local stores, and possibly the tourist industry.
“I’m saying, ‘Hey! We can approach the cruise lines and say we can cut your costs down,” Lewis explained. “Instead of paying the shipping costs for the produce you buy, you can get them fresh-picked and have them delivered when you dock up.”
According to McCollum, another beauty of the aquaponics facility is that it will ignite passion in students with varying academic abilities.
“If you look at the bell curve, you’ve got the small group on one side who are very accelerated and will easily take to this,” McCollum said. “But then there may be kids that, for whatever reason, this will be the one thing that makes them come to school and finish high school, and perhaps go even further. This is about career training. We have to find a niche for that group who has not decided what they want to do. We cannot afford to lose even one child.”
Evans-Freke agreed saying he hopes this project will help to generate an economy that offers future generations more career choices. “We need to diversify our economy, and so little has been done over the years.”
To date, Celtic has invested more than $60,000 in Kean’s clinic and the aquaponics system, and that’s just the beginning. Evans-Freke and Corr say they anticipate investing several hundred thousand more in the school in the years ahead.
“What most impressed me,” Evans-Freke said during a recent visit to the school, “was the very obvious dedication and passion that the school leadership and faculty have for improving their kids’ lives.”