Zero waste automated hydroponic/aquaponic lab merges student retention with research
Research & Innovation Jayme Blaschke | May 17, 2021
The Department of Agricultural Sciences at Texas State has received a $250,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Hispanic Serving Institution Education Grants Program to help improve the retention and graduation rates of underrepresented students while developing a zero-waste agricultural business model.
Bahram Asiabanpour, a professor in the Ingram School of Engineering, will serve as the principal investigator on "Bluewater: A Smart Circular Economy for Integrated Organic Hydroponic-Aquaponic Farming to Empower an Underrepresented Workforce," with Nicole Wagner, an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Sciences, and Mar Huertas, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology, serving as co-PIs.
Bluewater builds upon the work of an earlier project, EverGreen, an automated off-grid vertical farming lab at Texas State's Freeman Center that grew crops inside of shipping containers using hydroponics technology. Bluewater expands upon the EverGreen concept by adding aquaponics, vermicomposting and byproducts to the equation.
"We noticed that there was plant waste and fertilizer waste produced, so we added the aquaponic component, which is farming fish," Asiabanpour said. "Before it was just adding fertilizer and growing plants. By growing fish, the plant waste can become food for the fish, and the fish waste can become food for plants. We are cutting the waste from both sides, and now we have two products for market—plants as well as fish.
"There are lots of processed products and byproducts that could be developed from this system. From the fertilizer waste we can grow halophytes for animal feed and grow algae for use in biofuel. Also, vermicomposting can produce compost tea for plants and many other things. Everything is value-added. The opportunity's unlimited," he said. "We expanded into aquaponics to form a zero-waste circular economy. Nothing should go into trash in this process. Everything should be reused. We are implementing the three Rs in Bluewater: Reuse, Reduce and Recycle."
All of this ultimately benefits the students, undergraduates who are involved in ongoing research that equips them with advanced knowledge and skill sets for their future careers. It also keeps them on track to earn their degrees. Statistics show that retention and graduation rates for Hispanic students in agriculture, engineering and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields is much lower than for white students. Bluewater identifies those students who are most at risk and works to keep them in school. Financial hardship is a major contributing factor to that, and Bluewater addresses the issue directly by employing students as lab assistants.
"In this program, all the students who are involved are being paid at a competitive rate," Asiabanpour said. "While they are doing the research they are getting the work experience and they are also getting paid, so they don't need to have another job."
Bluewater's benefits aren't limited to those students directly involved with the program. The interdisciplinary faculty are adding course modules to be used in the classroom, serving a much larger student population. Bluewater is intended as a permanent laboratory addition to Texas State, serving both undergraduate and graduate students for years to come.
"We're training a diverse type of workforce in this process. We have a very good joint team of engineering students from the manufacturing, electrical and industrial engineering programs—as well as students from biology and agriculture," Asiabanpour said. "We're creating a whole bunch of new experts who have multidisciplinary experience. They work side by side and deal with problems that are interrelated. It's not one-dimensional expertise anymore. They get a good exposure of what it is like to work in the industry."
For more information, visit Evergreen.txstate.edu.