ORISE K-12 competition inspires student to build an aquaponic garden The 11-year-old was motivated to support healthier people and a healthier planet

August 18, 2020

Earlier this year, 11-year-old Catherine Manley decided to participate in the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education’s (ORISE) Earth Day student competition. She and dozens of other contestants submitted presentations encouraging others to save the planet from environmental threats like pollution, deforestation and resource depletion.

ORISE K-12 competition inspires student to build an aquaponic garden

Eleven-year-old Catherine Manley stands in front of the aquaponic garden she created in her home after participating in an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education student competition earlier this spring.   

After researching potential topics, Manley decided to focus her presentation on climate change and proposed a plan to have people from all different backgrounds build aquaponic gardens. Manley reasoned that since transporting food over long distances creates great quantities of carbon dioxide emissions, we can all do our part to reduce those emissions by creating our own food source.

“In big cities such as New York and Tokyo, you can still build aquaponic gardens on the roofs of buildings and in homes,” said Manley. “If the aquaponic farm is three city blocks away, versus 900 miles away, you don’t have to transport it as far.”

The practice of aquaponic gardening involves mimicking a natural ecosystem where plants are grown in water alongside fish who are eating and producing waste. The byproduct from the fish is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients that are essential for plant fertilization.

While the ORISE competition required students to explain what they would do hypothetically to save the Earth, Manley took things to a whole other level by actually building her own aquaponic garden. She used almost entirely all recycled materials with the one exception being a new grow light she purchased for simulating natural daylight.

Manley began her aquaponics journey where most gardens begin—by planting seeds in soil. She used an old ice cube tray to start her seeds, and once they were big enough, Manley removed them from the soil and put them in the family fish tank that she converted to be the main water basin of her aquaponic system. 

ORISE K-12 competition inspires student to build an aquaponic garden

Catherine Manley’s aquaponic garden includes a swarm of guppies, a breed of hearty and inexpensive fish that provides the byproduct nutrients her plants need to grow.

“I up-cycled plastic cups that were perfect for holding the plants so that the roots were half-in and half-out of the water and they can get oxygen,” said Manley. “And I selected guppies for the type of fish in the tank because they don’t nibble on the roots but they do produce a lot of waste. The waste becomes nutrients for the plants and the plants help filter the water in the tank. So it ends up being a symbiotic relationship.”

Manley has learned to troubleshoot along the way, making small adjustments to improve the performance of her aquaponic garden. She cut up a black trash bag to fill in around the plants and cover the water to keep algae from growing. And she’s tried planting different types of plants, learning that leafy greens do better in the garden than root-based vegetables such as carrots and beets.

The combination of research and the process of creating her own garden has helped Manley understand just why aquaponics is so good for sustainability.

“Aquaponic gardening is more productive because you can grow the plants more closely and they’ll grow faster than in soil,” said Manley. “Also, aquaponics gardens use less water, and because the water system is enclosed, there is less water runoff and evaporation.”

Manley’s original presentation for the ORISE Earth Day contest said that aquaponic gardens were the future of healthier people and a healthier planet. It’s fair to say that Manley’s initiative to build her own aquaponic garden is inspiration enough to convince other young students that they too can make a difference in improving the world we live in.

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The Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) is a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) asset that is dedicated to enabling critical scientific, research, and health initiatives of the department and its laboratory system by providing world class expertise in STEM workforce development, scientific and technical reviews, and the evaluation of radiation exposure and environmental contamination.

ORISE is managed by ORAU, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation and federal contractor, for DOE’s Office of Science. The single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.osti.gov.