This past spring, Engineers With a Mission designed and built an aquaponics system that turns fish waste into fertilizer and can produce over 200 head of lettuce in a growing season.
Last month, members of the Grove City College student organization installed the sustainable growing system at a community garden supported by Envision Cleveland, a Christian Missionary and Alliance ministry. The chemical-free, solar-powered addition will help provide neighborhood residents with fresh produce and, at the end of the season, a tilapia dinner.
It was a mission accomplished moment for the group, according to immediate past president Nico Campagna ’23, who graduated a few days earlier. “Our mission is to be the hands and feet of Christ by using our engineering skills to help people maintain their basic human needs,” he said. “Within the first day, we had the system assembled and running which was a result of thorough testing, preparation, and help setting up.”
Founded just a few years ago, Engineers With a Mission is committed to using the knowledge and skills they acquired in the College’s classrooms and labs to provide a service for others. The group has added service-learning value to engineering and other programs, according to adviser Dr. Erik R. Bardy, professor of Mechanical Engineering.
“As an extracurricular activity purposed for Christian service, it has drawn excitement from those involved,” Bardy said.
The group had previously worked on a system to wash plastics for plastic recycling in Uganda, but when the time for choosing a new project came around last fall, they decided to do something closer to their campus home.
A church connection through Bardy put the students in touch with Envision Cleveland and its community garden projects. Their three community gardens, which feature an orchard, beekeeping, and a large greenhouse, provide people with healthy food options and are part of a larger effort to engage, educate, and empower people to lead change in their neighborhoods.
After identifying a need, more than a dozen students in Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Biology got to work designing, fund raising and building. The self-contained aquaponics system they produced is a series of tanks that use the flow of water to turn fish waste into fertilizer for plants.
Water is pumped from a holding tank into the fish tank, which contains about a dozen tilapia. It then flows into a solids filtration tank, where the fish waste sinks to the bottom and the nitrates the system uses as fertilizer rise to the top. That tank feeds into a grow bed filled with clay pebbles where seeds and plants are fed by the fertilizer and the water moving through it. A ball siphon in the grow bed creates a vacuum that pulls the circulated water back into the holding tank and the process starts all over.
The only inputs required are a little power for the holding tank pump (the rest of the water flow is gravity fed) and some food for the fish, which can also be harvested after the growing season ends.
While designing and building the system, the students learned some real-world lessons in project management, communication, logistics, and fundraising, Bardy said. Engineers With a Mission raised about $8,500 from businesses, churches, and individuals for the project.
They constructed the system in Rockwell Hall on campus and then moved it to an outbuilding at Grove City Alliance Church, where they could test the fluid dynamics and make sure everything would work when they installed it in Cleveland. Last week, they loaded it onto a truck and headed to Cleveland for a few days of work.
After getting the system set up on day one, they met with the Envision Cleveland team that will be maintaining it. “They were very excited to be the new owners of the aquaponics system and learn all about it,” Campagna said. The Engineers With a Mission team also learned about the community gardens and met some people who benefit from their bounty.
“The aquaponics project fits into our mission as we serve the people in need in Cleveland. It will bring fresh produce and fish to the area, which is hard to come by, and serve as a teaching tool and beacon of God's love for all in the community,” he said. “By the end of the trip, everything was set up, fish were swimming happily in their tank, and all that was left was to put the plants in the grow bed.”
The Engineers With a Mission team that made the trip to Cleveland included Matthew Montazzoli ’24, Jacob Smith ‘24, Ben Elverson ‘24, Kelly Brannan ‘23, Haley Steele ‘24, and Jared Custer ’23. Other students that were involved include Hunter Jones ’23, Ben Genberg ’24, Jon Wier ’24, Eric Wallace ’24, James Condon ’24, Ryley Grossman ’24, Chris Stone ’24, Sydney Hanson ’23, and Tyler Bailey ’24 also worked on the project.
For more about Mechanical Engineering at Grove City College, visit gcc.edu/mece; about Electrical and Computer Engineering, visit gcc.edu/elec.