Since August, dozens of students at Brookstown Middle School in Baton Rouge have been raising catfish with a plan to use the fish waste as fertilizer to grow lettuce.
It’s a marriage of aquaculture and hydroponics known as “aquaponics.” That’s a new word to pretty much everyone involved. Now wise to the idea, the students have become big fans.
The school aquaponics lab is the brainchild of ExxonMobil electrical engineer Ronnie Morris, who spent $6,000 of his own money to buy the equipment for the middle school. At a ceremony in the school auditorium Thursday, Morris challenged the students at the middle school to make the most of this opportunity.
“Your lab has the potential over the course of one year to produce 100 pounds of catfish and 1,000 heads of lettuce,” said Morris. “From one scientist to another, let me remind you that the yield is not what matters most. What really matters are the decisions you will make along the way, the friendships you’ll build and the skills you’ll learn.”
Morris’ idea grew out of the house he and his wife built in Baton Rouge a few years ago. They decided to dig a fishing pond for their young grandchildren. But as he began to research what it took to create a healthy pond, Morris said, the scientist in him began to light up with the possibilities. And as he began to think about it more, he saw how growing fish could set schoolchildren up for a love of science and pathway to a better life.
“And it’s fun. There’s so many STEM elements involved in it. You know, water quality, the fish, gathering data, organic vegetation, on and on and on.”
STEM is short for science, technology, engineering and math.
Morris said he didn’t graduate from college himself until he was 30 and his education in engineering changed his life. “It opened up doors me. It can for other people,” he said.
Morris found that others he approached about his idea quickly shared his enthusiasm and saw possibilities as well. His employer agreed to help. And through LSU, he was connected to the East Baton Rouge Parish school system and was immediately directed to Brookstown.
The reason was in part because of what the middle school has been through.
In August 2016, after two days of school, the school flooded. The faculty and students quickly relocated, sharing space with another middle school the first semester and then moving to a vacant elementary school the second semester.
In November, three months after the flood, Brookstown Middle’s gym was set on fire.
This past summer, the school system spent $6 million fixing up the facility on East Brookstown Drive.
“This school has risen from the flood and the ashes,” Superintendent Warren Drake said Thursday.
Principal James Smith said he was excited when he heard he was going to get a new science program but drew a blank when he heard the name.
“They said, ‘It’s going to be aquaponics,’ I said, ‘That’s wonderful.' I had no idea what it was.”
He said it’s turned out to be a lot of fun, though it has made unanticipated demands on his time.
“You all don’t know what we’ve been through,” Smith said. “We have been in this building at 10 and 11 at night on fish alert, just so these kids can have this great opportunity.”
Smith tapped science teacher Lauraleigh Eddleman, whom he’d recruited to the school three years earlier, to make it work. Eddleman, who also had no idea what aquaponics was, had her work cut out for her.
“Needless to say, it was a very busy, very wonderful summer break,” she said.
The lab looks pristine now, but that was not the case as the first day of school neared in early August. She ended up having one day to arrange her new room.
Once school started, it’s been a series of trial and error. With the help of Morris, who has stayed involved as project engineer for the initiative, Eddleman had to figure out how to raise catfish.
“What taught me more than anything were the mishaps,” Eddleman said.
First instance, a handful of the first batch of fish died. The students had taken a water quality test and the tank came out alright, but the fish still died.
“We know that all the tests are not necessarily accurate and so we do all tests now three times.”
Two of the survivors were in such bad shape that the class on the fly created a fish-oriented intensive care unit, or FICU, where the hurt catfish went on an antibiotic regimen. The students named them Jack and Jill, though since they are both female, Eddleman said, they should really be called Jacqueline and Jill.
The second batch of fish, which now numbers 33, appears to be doing well. Their waste will be turned into fertilizer for a bed of hydroponic lettuce that will be grown on what’s known as a “raft tank” in the lab.
Jamie Coleman, 12, found a fish she identified with because of its bright colors; she named it after herself.
"Jamie is unique," she said. "She's a beta fish."
Jamie was thinking she'd be a fashion designer when she grows up, but now is thinking of something in the sciences.
"Every day she has that class, she’s got something to come home and tell me about," said her mother, Kristy Harris. "We’re learning together."
The school’s lunchroom has agreed to buy the lettuce that the kids grow for use in school lunches, but the students have to comply with strict food safety restrictions. Tony’s Seafood, meanwhile, has agreed to buy the catfish once they are large enough for sale to customers. The north Baton Rouge institution also plans to give the students a tour.
ExxonMobil has contributed $5,000 to the project, including $3,500 to pay for artists with The Walls Project to paint two large murals for the aquaponics lab. The murals were unveiled Thursday.
Thursday was also a big day because most of the 55 students in the program qualified to get special white lab coats. They had to clear four tests given by Eddleman showing their knowledge of this new field. Forty-two managed to clear that hurdle and Principal Smith put their lab coats on one student at a time.
Morris said he has high expectations for the rare program.
“We will have the best middle school scientists in the state of Louisiana,” he said.