Ambler Campus places spotlight on Aquaponics

Students work in the Ambler Campus Aquaponics Research Lab

Temple University Ambler has of history of farming dating back to the 1800s and likely even longer. The Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women — the forerunner to Temple Ambler — was a working farm. It wasn’t out of the ordinary to see students waking before the morning sunrise to milk the prize cows and tend to the other animals and fields.

In 2016, farming research of an altogether different sort is taking place at Ambler.

Students, faculty and staff continue to expand a fully developed — and constantly growing — aquaponics garden and research lab, which has taken root in the underutilized lower level of West Hall.

“Aquaponics is the cultivation of plants and aquatic animals in a self-sustaining, symbiotic environment. Essentially the cycle of aquaponics is that the waste from the fish becomes food for the plants; the plants absorb the nutrients and naturally filter the water back into the fish tank,” said Connor Fleming, a Horticulture major and one of several students supporting staff and faculty in the Ambler Campus Aquaponics Research Lab. “Aquaponics has the benefits of both aquaculture and hydroponics. We use 90 percent less water than would be used in soil-based farming.”

The star of the Aquaponics Lab is Joe, a four-year-old, two pound tilapia that has been living at Ambler since the aquaponics garden was first developed. While he’s been affectionately nicknamed “Dinner” by some staff members, Joe will never be on the menu.

While traditional commercial aquaponics gardens focus on harvesting both plants and fish, the Ambler aquaponics lab — fully accredited by the AAALAC (Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care) — is focused entirely on research, exploring different types of aquaponics set-ups and finding the best balance between fish, plants and nutrients, according to Michael Bavas, Senior Technical Support Specialist in Temple’s Computer Services Department who helped spearhead the aquaponics project at Ambler.

“Aquaponics addresses large scale problems, such as water conservation and overfishing. If it’s an indoor system, there is no need for pesticides,” he said. “This is a very healthy way to raise fish and grow plants. Our plan is to make our aquaponics garden fully sustainable by, over time, adding solar panels, collecting rainwater and growing our own fish food — there are so many resources available to us right here on campus.”

Aquaponics, which began as a grassroots effort on campus in 2013, has come a long way in just a few years. In fall 2015, the Department of Landscape Architecture and Horticulture offered a three-credit Aquaponics horticulture course for the first time, a hybrid class offered on campus and online taught by Adjunct Instructor Tom Bilotta.
Bilotta will also offer a four-week non-credit Introduction to Aquaponics course on campus in March — four classes that meet on Thursdays from March 10 to March 31.

“This has been a very exciting step for aquaponics at Ambler; it’s also a very natural next step after receiving accreditation. We first offered the non-credit course in aquaponics last year and it proved particularly popular with teachers — it covered the fundamentals of developing an aquaponics system at any scale,” said Bilotta. “The three-credit course provides the background and basic understanding of this intertwined and complex system, design choices, and the science behind aquaponics. Students gain the skills to develop, design and build an aquaponics system for home or business use.”

The three-credit course will be offered again during the fall 2016 semester while the non-credit course will also be available in June 2016, according to Bilotta. The centerpiece of both the three-credit and non-credit courses is, of course, the aquaponics lab itself, home to Joe and more than two dozen other tilapia, a wide array of vegetable plants, and about 1,000 compost worms, which help break down solids and add additional nutrients to the system.

The aquaponics structure, while appearing quite “Rube Goldbergian” in nature, is efficient and economical. Amid the vibrantly growing vegetable plants and tilapia sits a 450 gallon pool, several feet of PVC piping, submersible pumps, grow lights and plastics bins that act as growing beds filled with expanded clay (any pH-neutral stone will do — no soil is used).

As awareness of Temple’s aquaponics lab has grown, so has interest from outside organizations, said Bilotta. An upcoming talk on aquaponics at Longwood Gardens led by Bilotta and Bavas, he said, “sold out very quickly.” Courses have attracted everyone from entrepreneurs, government officials and teachers to homeowners, foodies and survivalists, he added.

“I think more and more people are becoming interested in the idea of growing their own food in a closed system that they control,” said Bilotta, who has a home aquaponics system in his living room that his children help tend. “Schools are particularly interested in aquaponics as a teaching tool. It’s a beautiful way to show how a self-sufficient ecosystem actually works in a controlled environment.”

Bilotta said Temple’s aquaponics lab is working closely with the Overbrook Art and Environmental Education Center in Philadelphia to develop a comprehensive aquaponics system.

“Studies at Overbrook have found that students’ grades have seen marked improvement when they are involved in hands-on learning activities,” he said. “They have a small system now, but they want to take that to the next level. They want to create an aquaponics system that the students would oversee with guidance from teachers at the center.” 

One of the great things about aquaponics, Bavas said, “is its versatility.”

“This is something that can be catered to any size growing environment, indoor or outdoor — from a single tank at home with a few fish to warehouse-sized industrial systems,” he said. “We’re also working with Robbins Park in the Upper Dublin School District to help them develop a small aquaponics system as an education tool.” 

One of the main goals of the aquaponics lab, Bavas said, “is to use the system to educate our students and the public.”  

“We want student and community involvement to help create an awareness about aquaponics and its uses. We want to become a resource for community gardeners so that they can develop aquaponics systems of their own,” he said. “Its organic farming that can be set up in almost any space and you can grow food year round. The plants grow faster and are healthier and there is no run-off — I think is a vital farming technique for today and the years ahead.”

At Ambler, the lab is continually seeking ways to improve and expand its system.

“We’re working with a company called Zoetic Aquaponics in Harrisburg on the next steps for our system. With a larger scale system with a lot of fish, a lot more fish waste is produced; in some cases more than the plants can handle,” Bilotta said. “Zoetic is developing a zero discharge system that would actually provide higher nutrient levels to the system as a whole, which gives us the opportunity to grow plants that need more nutrients, such as strawberries. They are also working on a small scale system on wheels that could be taken into classrooms.”  

Visit Ambler Aquaponics online at facebook.com/ambleraquaponics for more information.