Sitka Students Build 'Aquaponics in a Suitcase'

April 19, 2020 | Education | Kallie McCutcheon

For the last six years Sitka Adventist School children have harvested carrots, peas, potatoes, rhubarb, rainbow chard and kale from school's garden.

"We would have blueberries too, but the kids eat all of those at recess!" says teacher, Kallie McCutcheon.

Sitka Adventist School sits right on the Sitka Sound. Children working in the garden are surrounded by the call of gulls and the roar of waves. Garden duty creates dirty hands, big smiles and exuberant declarations. 

Stop by the school during harvest and you'll hear comments like, “Look at this huge orange carrot!” or, “I love picking these peas, Mrs. McCutcheon!”

After attending an Excellence in STEM Experiential Education (EXSEED) workshop last summer, McCutcheon wondered if it would be possible to harvest a garden year-round. Thus began, “Aquaponics in a Suitcase.” Phase one began with a regular aquarium, with just plants on top.

McCutcheon says,  "Our first fish died, but we got more. It took five tries to cut the Styrofoam floating board without it breaking."

A few tears and lots of encouragement later, it worked. After testing the perseverance of both elementary school students and their teacher, the school finally had working aquaponics. 

Phase two of the project introduced commercial hanging gardens. Students learned to build an operating hydroponics system — without fish this time. They drilled, glued, plumbed and hung grow lights, with prayers going up constantly asking Jesus for a greater portion of His overcoming Spirit, as well as a few of His earthly carpentry skills.

"Jesus' apparent response was to send some volunteers to work with my students," says McCutcheon. "It wasn't long until we had 18 little basil plants were growing nicely. Hopefully, in a few months we will have enough plant growth to sell the clippings as a school fundraiser."

Was it all worth it? The students were engaged, they were challenged, and they learned a valuable skill for the society of tomorrow. That’s what STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education is all about.