What can make high school students give up the first two weeks of their summer vacation? For the last 2 years, some Richmond-area teenagers have done just that – postponing summer jobs, vacations, and overall leisure time for the MathScience Innovation Center's Tank to Table class.
But this isn't just any class. Tank to Table is an experience-rich exploration of aquaponics – the sustainable breeding, rearing, and harvesting of aquatic plants and animals. The gentle hum of a 400-gallon recirculating aquaculture system in the corner of the classroom provides background for students to dissect fish and oysters, learn to rear brine shrimp and trout, design and build their own miniature aquaculture system, assess food to growth ratios in goldfish, and discuss aquaculture techniques for trout, fish, oysters and prawns with guest presenters. Tank to Table expands students’ knowledge of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, deepens a culture of stewardship towards our environment and cultivates a diverse and marketable skill set in biology, engineering, chemistry, mathematics, fisheries and culinary arts that encourages students to consider and embrace further studies and careers in aquaculture.
Queen of Oysters, Deborah Pratt, instructing on proper oyster shucking technique. Oysters provided by Mike Hutt, Director of the Virginia Marine Products Board.
Field trips for the Tank to Table course have included visits to oyster farms, the VCU Rice Rivers Center, Montebello Fish Culture Station, a 400-acre agriculture facility at Virginia State University, an oyster research lab at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and tonging for oysters on the Chesapeake Bay.
Hand tonging for oysters with waterman Captain Danny Crabbe of Crabbe's Charter Fishing.
Of course, a class with "table" in the title has to have a culinary component, and on "culinary day", guest chefs work with the students to prep and cook oysters, fish, and a variety of vegetables. In previous years, the chefs were Phillip Gravely and David Booth of the Culinary Center of Richmond, and Mike Ledesma, longtime corporate chef who is opening his new restaurant Perch this summer. This year's guest chef was Lee Gregory, executive chef of The Roosevelt, Southbound, and Alewife.
Guest chef Mike Ledesma with members of the 2017 class.
For some students, their summer's aquaponics journey doesn't end there. Four students are chosen as SPATT (Students Pursuing Aquaculture Technology Training) to serve one-week residential internships in the Aquaculture Genetics and Breeding Technology Center (ABC), run by Dr. Stan Allen at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. During their internship, students experience aspects of oyster aquaculture that include spat setting, algaculture, controlled spawning of select varieties, efforts to control disease, and building of oyster floats and cages. In addition, they learn about scallop and clam farming by visiting facilities on the Eastern Shore.
Interns Valerie Lebron (L) and Selena Dajani working with oyster cages in the York River at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
For many students, the class has been a life-changing experience. Some students have modified their career paths because of the new experiences and knowledge gained through the program. Others have become aquaculture advocates in their own schools, taking back what they learned and putting it into practice by setting up aquaponics miniature systems in their various schools.
These students are teaching their fellow classmates and often advising their teachers on the setup and maintenance of the systems. This past summer, a Tank to Table for Teachers class was offered for educators, and participating teachers have taken an active role in sharing aquaculture concepts in their classrooms. For example, Ms. Susan Anderson, an alumnus of the teacher class, has established two recirculating aquaculture systems at Carver College and Career Academy in Chesterfield County. The setup was facilitated by a student alumnus, Gentry Kerwood, and is a foundational component of the school's agriculture initiative to inspire career options in the students.
Members of the 2018 class Kadyn Marker (L) and Russell Bowles show the recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) at Chesterfield Technical Center to John Graham of Graham Bass Farm in Bedford, VA.
Tank to Table strives to reach students and teachers with a STEM-focused message of sustainability. As future partnerships are forged, we plan to offer more post-class experiences in areas of fish farming, prawn rearing, and aquaponics vegetable production. Who knows, your next helping of fish or oysters may arrive courtesy of a Tank to Table student alumnus!
Culinary day in 2016 at the Culinary Center of Richmond with Chefs Martin Gravely and David Booth.