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Aquaponics project combines learning, innovation, and community service in Honduras

(from left) Alex Aurand, Samantha Fisher, and Andrew Stratton take a quick break(from left) Alex Aurand, Samantha Fisher, and Andrew Stratton take a quick breakIn Siete de Mayo, a small, rural neighborhood in Choluteca, Honduras, human health and nutrition are constant concerns. Alternating wet and dry seasons commonly lead to limited harvests, often resulting in a shortage of fresh produce.

But a group of Ohio State seniors set out to fix this problem by integrating their student aquaponics project into the community.

As a part of their Engineering Multidisciplinary Capstone Project, seniors Alex Aurand (integrated systems engineering), Samantha Fisher (food science and technology), Collin Greer (finance), Bo Jiang (mechanical engineering), Andrew Stratton (food, agriculture and biological engineering), and Nick Weithman (mechanical engineering) spent the 2012-2013 school year building a prototype aquaponics system and planning its implementation in Honduras.

Aquaponics is a technique for sustainable food production that utilizes the combination of aquaculture with hydroponics to grow fish and vegetables without soil. It offers an affordable and sustainable system that families and communities can use to supplement their diets with fresh, inexpensive fish and vegetables.

The aquaponics process begins with fish producing waste, which is then pumped through a bio-filter to convert it from ammonia into fertilizer for the plants. Plants use nutrients from that water and the freshly oxygenated water is returned to the fish tank.  By recirculating the water from the fish tank to the grow bed, the need for water is greatly reduced compared to traditional irrigation.

On campus, the students tested the system to improve its effectiveness and researched local and economically viable materials that could be used to build the same type of model in Honduras.

Aurand, Fisher and Stratton then spent two weeks in Choluteca with Engineering Experiment Station Senior Project Manager Howard Greene and Graduate Teaching Assistant Ramiro Duarte to implement the project. They constructed the aquaponics system and trained village residents on how to use it to grow food, and how to maintain and repair the system.

While the primary goal is to provide a reliable source of fresh food, the students also believe the project could catalyze a small business opportunity for village residents, either by selling surplus food or by installing systems in other communities.

Greene said that these types of projects are transformational for students.

“It is critically important for our students to understand the context of the solutions they develop and this experience is unparalleled at preparing them for that,” said Greene. “They build an accountability with the end users of their innovations that becomes a powerful force, guiding them through the engineering design process and culminating in an installation at an end-user’s residence.”

Stratton said that he finds it important to have an understanding of different communities, beyond borders.

“I think that in today’s global economy it’s really important to have an understanding of other cultures and how to work in an engineering or professional setting,” said Stratton. “This international cooperation that we found is doing wonders for more than just us, it’s promoting the global community.”

Tags: Students