MESA Program uses Aquaponics to Combat Hunger in Philadelphia

In 2017, the United States experienced 16 weather and climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each — nearly $20 billion in total — affecting communities' ability to operate as usual, including access to food, energy and water. 

Concerned leaders are considering how severe weather is distorting food prices, disrupting supply chains, damaging plants and impacting the nation's ability to feed its hungry as the climate continues to change.

In an effort to highlight the need for talented young people who can address sustainability, including increasing local access to food, Temple Engineering and the Math, Engineering & Science Achievement (MESA) program, through state EITC (Educational Improvement Tax Credit) funds, is piloting an innovative STEM pre-apprenticeship to teach high school juniors and seniors how to engineer and use technology to sustain in-door growing environments for community use.  

Engineering, in partnership with the Temple University Ambler Aquaponics Lab, the Philadelphia School district's Career Technical Education (CTE) program, and six area schools, is sponsoring 30 students from W.B. Saul, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington Carver high schools, in an 18-month project to build and place aquaponics systems in the heart of North Philadelphia. Engineering is additionally sponsoring a $1,500 achievement stipend, digital badges and is working to secure a paid internship in engineering technology or manufacturing for each student.

"We anticipate these students will not only become interested in engineering and technologies, but will apply to college to learn how to solve food, energy and water challenges anywhere in Philadelphia", said Keya Sadeghipour, Dean of the College of Engineering. "We are creating a more diverse group of young people who are able to use rigorous, competitive academics to tackle these serious challenges in their own backyard."   

The MESA novices are being led by Master Gardener Bertram Johnson, an agriculture teacher at W.B. Saul High School, who also helped build the Temple Ambler Aquaponics lab and has worked closely with the lab on several community aquaponics projects.    

"Far too many people have to go a very long way, potentially miles, just to get to a grocery store. Aquaponics systems can change that," he said. "You can create aquaponics systems in shipping containers, in old houses. It is a very versatile form of controlled-environment agriculture that can be undertaken almost anywhere."

Over the past several months, the high school students have attended special Saturday Academy workshops on Main Campus and at Temple Ambler to learn engineering design, hands-on prototyping, programming, horticultural and agricultural skills.  Thanks to a successful Ambler "OwlCrowd" crowdfunding campaign, the students have access to a Fusion3 F400 3-D printer to design innovative, cost-saving custom parts for any aquaponics system and develop robotics components for applications. 

In 2018 MESA students will build aquaponics units in three schools — Lincoln High School, Kenderton K-8 School and Sharswood Elementary School — and work with Engineering students to convert two shipping containers into indoor farms within North Philadelphia's food deserts.

"It's an ambitious but critically needed project," said Jamie M. Bracey, Director of Temple's new Center for Inclusive Competitiveness, which is home to the MESA program. "Blending STEM, social impact and sustainability connects urban students to the idea they will be required to provide critical resources in the future".

Paula Miller, a teacher at Abraham Lincoln High School, said the student response to the internship program "has been amazing."

"At Abraham Lincoln, we've developed an environmental engineering pathway," she said. "This is something that our students are extremely interested in; it fit our mission perfectly. They want to help develop new means of growing plants."

For sophomore Javon Hairston, there was never a doubt that he would get involved in the MESA program.

"When I was in the fourth grade, I had a teacher who introduced me to astronomy. I've been digging deeper into the sciences ever since," he said. "With this apprenticeship, I want to gain more knowledge, learn and grown and gain enough experience to share that knowledge with others."

India Boykin, a senior in Johnson's environmental science class at W.B. Saul, believes developing alternative farming methods is essential for the future.

"Global warming is a reality that we will have to continue to face for years to come. Part of that has to be different ways of farming, methods that people will be able to use as an everyday part of their lives," said Boykin, who is interested in engineering as a profession. "At Saul, we've worked with aquaponics before and we can share our experiences with others. I felt this program was an opportunity to meet other students who share similar interests and help advance these concepts."

According to Michael Bavas, Senior Technical Support Specialist in Temple's Computer Services Department and Principal Investigator of the Ambler Campus Aquaponics Lab, building partnerships between Temple and area schools is a key goal for the lab.   

"We want to use the system to educate our students and the public while exploring technologies like 3D printing and electronics measuring systems. We want student and community involvement to help create an awareness about aquaponics and its uses," he said. "We want to become a resource for community gardeners so that they can develop aquaponics systems of their own — I think it is a vital farming technique for today and the years ahead."