Physics students travel, work with Liberty community for aquaponics project

For the last several years, the William Jewell College Physics Department has been in the process of developing an aquaponics system. Aquaponics is a system in which plants and fish grow in water with no soil or chemicals. The plants and fish then have a cyclical relationship that allows them to feed each other: the fish provide nutrients for the plants, and the plants keep the water fresh for the fish. Both the plants and fish are edible. This system uses approximately 90 percent less water than traditional soil-based systems, making it suitable for growing food in developing countries where both water and food that have not been imported may be scarce.

Sam Cobb, junior, and Alicia Loecker, sophomore, have been researching and developing these systems. Cobb began her research as a Pillsbury Scholar in 2013. She had the opportunity to install solar panels for an aquaponics system in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, and then began her own research on the systems when she returned home.

“I decided that I was going to study and build a system in the department for my research class,” Cobb said. “I then got obsessed with aquaponics and took every opportunity to talk about it or implement it.”

Loecker worked as a Pillsbury Scholar the following summer and also became interested in how the systems could be implemented in other countries.

“The more information I acquired about it, the more I realized how useful a system could be for a developing nation,” Loecker said.

Since then, the two have built a system within the physics department.

Cobb and Loecker have been communicating with representatives from different countries about implementing systems in various rural communities. Cobb and Loecker traveled to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands in 2014 to learn more about aquaponics and undergo training on how to implement a system. Then they, along with Margaret Perko, junior political science and communications major, traveled to Eleuthera in the Bahamas last January over the 2014 winter break.

“We want to find the most efficient way to provide food for communities, as well as provide members of the community with the knowledge of how aquaponics works and all the intricate parts that go into it,” said Loecker. “We don’t want to just build a system for a community; we want them to be interested and involved.”

Each member of the team emphasized how important building a relationship with these communities is, rather than just building the system and then leaving.

“Really everybody’s role there was to acquaint ourselves with the island and its amazing residents,” Perko said. “The important backbone of our project has been the understanding that lasting change does not come from ‘one and done’ encounters with people who think they know ‘the solution.”’

Cobb echoed this sentiment.

“I don’t want to just go in and tell people that this system is something they need. If you think about it, when people tell you that you need something, do you actually believe them?” said Cobb.

Currently, Cobb and Loecker have a working system in the physics lab, and they are in the process of implementing the system in other countries as well as in a Liberty coffee shop, Morning Day Cafe, which is owned by Miranda Barchers.

“One of the professors I met [at the cafe] happened to mention aquaponics and I thought, ‘that’s really cool; I’ve been wanting to do that here.’ I try to be really transparent with what I serve, and this was one more way to do that,” Barchers said.

Barchers visited the system at the College and decided to pursue the idea for the restaurant. At Morning Day Cafe, the focus was less on creating a great quantity of food and more on making an appealing structure in the restaurant.

“[Working in a restaurant] has been a different experience. In a community, we are focused on efficiency and making sure the most productivity is reached. In a restaurant, we are more focused on making it appealing to the customers so they may also become interested in aquaponics,” Loecker said. “We want to help members of communities get involved in the sustainability of their community.”

Barchers also expressed a desire to create buzz for the project.

“We also included a couple of artists in the design process. We want to be able to reuse things as much as possible: different tanks, recycled pipe,” Barchers said. “You know, I want my daughter’s friends to be talking about aquaponics.”

Support from the community for the project has helped the students gain attention and funding for their work.

“It is nice to see that the local community is getting excited about something like this,” Cobb said.

The Morning Day aquaponics project is currently in the development process, and the physics students will continue working with aquaponics systems for the duration of their time at Jewell.

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