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OHM BOCES Conservation Students Learning Career Skills Through Aquaponics

View the story from the Utica Observer-Dispatch: 
Taking a break from computers and electronics can be difficult for some teenagers today, but students studying Conservation at Oneida-Herkimer-Madison BOCES Career and Technical Education Center (CTEC) say that is one of their favorite parts of the program.

“We enjoy working with our friends every day and getting to work with our hands,” said Robbie Evans of Sauquoit. “It’s not something where you have to sit at a computer all day. You get to talk to other people and be hands-on.”

Students in the Conservation program are getting hands-on experience with sustainable, year-round farming techniques through a process called aquaponics. Aquaponics is the use of aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (growing plants in water and without soil) together in one integrated system. An aquaponics system forms a symbiotic relationship between fish and plants in which the fish waste provides organic food for the growing plants and the plants filter the water in which the fish live. These systems cut water use, decrease dependence on fertilizers and pesticides, allow for more flexible use of land, and reduce waste.

Aquaculture and hydroponics have both been a part of the Conservation program in previous years, with students raising tilapia and growing plants separately. As a new project this year, Conservation Teacher Philip Lacelle has implemented a larger aquaponics system for his students to work with.

“Aquaponics illustrates different principles in science, agriculture, math, business and other subjects,“ said Lacelle. “The students are involved in every part of the process, from developing their own systems, to raising the baby fish to adults, and starting their own plants from seed.”

Students are also gaining real-world experience with problem solving and responsibility. “After a while it doesn’t even feel like school anymore, it’s more like a job,” Evans added. “You have a routine and know what you need to do every day. If something is going wrong you look at what you can do to make it better.”

Lacelle plans to expand the aquaponics project in coming years, and to be able to donate the vegetable and herb crops to the BOCES cafeteria and Culinary Arts program. The conservation program already works with the culinary students at the end of each school year, when the adult tilapia are harvested and given to the Culinary Arts program to be prepared for meals.

“When students collaborate it benefits both classes,” said Culinary Arts Teacher Charles Hoffmeister. “Conservation students learn various preparation and cooking methods, and culinary students learn what “whole” fish look and feel like. Both sets of students work together to filet, skin and cook the fish using a variety of cooking techniques including frying, pan-blackening and grilling.”

Lauren Kinney of Whitesboro appreciates the diversity of her studies in the Conservation program. “CTEC provides a variety of environments,” said Kinney. “It’s the hands-on opportunity that you wouldn’t be able to get in your home district. You get to see and explore what you like or don’t like, and get experience that will benefit you down the road.”

The OHM BOCES Conservation program is a blend of classroom instruction and outdoor hands-on learning, with the importance of a favorable work ethic stressed. Students acquire skills in forestry, fish and wildlife management, heavy equipment operation, timber harvesting, chain saw operation and maintenance, tree climbing, map and compass reading, GPS, surveying and more. In OHM BOCES’ greenhouse, students become skilled in hydroponics, aquaculture and plant propagation. Seniors in Conservation may be eligible to receive college credit through agreements with universities including Bryant & Stratton, SUNY Cobleskill and SUNY Morrisville.

This February, in celebration of National Career and Technical Education month, the OHM BOCES Career and Technical Education Center will host its fifth annual Saturday Showcase. The event will take place from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, February 4 at the OHM BOCES on Middle Settlement Road in New Hartford, N.Y.

OHM BOCES students will have an assortment of projects on display, as well as interactive activities to entertain visitors. The CTE store will be open to guests, featuring student-made merchandise such as cellphone amplifiers, shepherd hooks, bottle racks and bluebird boxes. The Culinary program will offer cannoli, gourmet soups, grilled pizza and pastries. Salon services will include braiding, hair wrapping, nail art and paraffin wax treatments. For more information, contact the Career and Technical Education Center at 315.793.8666.