Joshua Cincotta, an incoming senior at Commonwealth Charter Academy, doesn’t seem to mind spending part of his summer tending to plants at school.
Then again, the Midtown Harrisburg teen isn’t dealing with your typical potted seedlings found on classroom windowsills.
Cincotta, 17, is one of many CCA students in grades K-12 pitching in to run AgWorks at CCA, the largest public educational aquaponics facility in the United States, located right at CCA’s Capital Campus in Harrisburg.
This state-of-the-art learning laboratory provides students at all grade levels with hands-on experience in aquaponics, a form of hydroponics—growing and sustaining plants in water—that utilizes aquatic life waste as fertilizer.
In total, AgWorks comprises 3,000 plants and 400 fish, with plans for further expansion. The facility also includes several student research labs funded through various grants.
“Every student has to clean, harvest and plant,” said CCA’s Samantha Johnson. “Some require teamwork, some work alone. It’s very important that students run this facility. They need to make mistakes and learn from that.”
Since CCA operates as a cyberschool, most of its full-time students access AgWorks during the school year on a remote basis. These students obtain virtual learning experiences through live cameras, high-tech water monitoring sensors and an online digital dashboard that processes real-time data.
Students like Cincotta who live near the school often pop in to do lab tasks in person. Earlier this year, he and lab partner Kenya Mitchell, an incoming CCA senior from Steelton, began designing an AgWorks fish autofeeder as an independent study project under the tutelage of math tutor Daniel Friess. The project remains ongoing, Cincotta said.
CCA also has developed a fully functional, smaller-scale mobile version of AgWorks that travels throughout the state to provide remote students with the same hands-on opportunities as pupils living near the campus.
For now, the sprawling, 6,100-square-foot AgWorks facility, designed by Harrisburg-based INTAG Systems, grows everything from banana trees to butter lettuce to palm trees and a cornstalk patch meticulously hand-pollinated by a student.
Overhead lights throughout the lab are set to just about every color of the rainbow to meet the needs of varying plant species. Plants are fertilized with processed waste derived from the hundreds of colorful fish seen darting through the lab’s three towering, 690-gallon tanks. Raw fish waste is processed by nearby clarifying tanks before being piped into plant waters.
“The students test the waters here every week with meters. It’s the same as the state Department of Environmental Protection,” said Johnson, AgWorks’ director of the aquaponics program. “Our students come out career-ready. They test for nitrates, ammonia, pH and alkalinity.”
AgWorks also is noted as a sustainable, zero-waste ecosystem. Its plants are fertilized by fish, resulting in higher yields than traditional agriculture. In addition, bio-controls are used in place of pesticides, ensuring that the GMO-free produce is free of contaminants. Solar panels located on the roof of CCA’s Capital Campus supply 100 percent of the energy needed to power the overall facility.
Produce harvested at AgWorks at CCA is donated to community food banks or is sold to local retailers and restaurants, including the Hilton Harrisburg and Harvest Seasonal Grill and Wine Bar. AgWorks directors also plan to sell the facility’s harvested tilapia, koi and prawn but first must obtain a processing license from the USDA, Johnson said.
For Dave Magrogan, Harvest’s CEO and founder, food freshness is “a big deal.” Thanks to AgWorks, Magrogan doesn’t question the freshness of the micro-greens it supplies to his farm-to-table restaurant at The Shoppes at Susquehanna Marketplace. In fact, customers have complimented the freshness and taste of AgWorks produce, he said.
“The big thing about Harvest is serving our customers the best produce at the best time of year,” said Magrogan, who said he’s considering adding AgWorks as a supplier to other Harvest Grill locations.
Most importantly, the controlled environment agriculture center gives CCA students first-hand experience.
Cincotta said that he enjoys learning about all of the different plant systems—hydroponics, aeroponics and aquaponics.
“I like working in the lab,” he said. “I’m working on Mondays (this summer) to dose the plants. It’s challenging to have the patience for this because dosing isn’t the most entertaining thing to do. But all in all, aquaponics is super awesome.”
AgWorks at CCA is located at 1 Innovation Way, Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.agworks.ccaeducate.me.