Wartburg College professor’s Ioponics program making splash across 12 states (and counting) | Local News

WAVERLY – Wartburg College Professor Michael Bechtel was astonished at the rapid growth of both vegetables and fish in his experiments with aquaponics.

“We started with lettuce, and we couldn’t eat all the lettuce that came on. From the time we got the sprouts coming up, time to harvest was 10 days. Same with tomatoes. We started tomato seeds and before long, we had Frankenstein-looking tomato vines – 8 feet tall and 10 feet wide. The stems couldn’t hold up the tomatoes,” he recalled.

“Once everything gets set up, it’s crazy and amazing how fast everything grows. We’ve been growing strawberries, and the plants will kill themselves producing strawberries.”

Bechtel’s system is Ioponics, abbreviated from Iowa aquaponics, which combines aquaculture, or raising fish, with hydroponics, or growing plants without soil. An integrated micro-system is created which uses aerobic bacteria to transform fish waste (ammonia/nitrites) into plant nutrients (nitrates).

The program already has made a splash for teaching about biosystems in elementary and middle schools in Iowa and beyond. In the past year, Bechtel and a team of Wartburg students have placed 129 Ioponics systems in 55 of Iowa’s 99 counties, in schools, libraries and other educational settings. Bechtel also has installed systems in 12 different states, including Alaska and Colorado.

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And for the second time, the program was made available to all Iowa educators through the Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council’s STEM Scale-Up Program. The state award supports the program for year-round hands-on learning at schools, as well as after-school programs, youth groups, libraries and other educational programs.

The award pays for the physical materials and continued technical support for the aquaponics system, which comes with cross-curricular lesson plans for PK-12 students that align with Iowa Core and Next Generation Science Standard prepared by Bechtel.

Classrooms and other programs submitted applications in late winter, and recipients will be announced in April.

Aquaponics began through Wartburg students’ undergraduate research projects. Nine years ago, one of Bechtel’s students, Ryan Zinkel, asked a question about hydroponics that sparked the professor’s interest. He described his subsequent research and program development as “pretty much a vertical learning curve.”

That first experience proved successful enough that after Bechtel’s first vegetable harvest, the 50 tilapia he’d purchased to “fertilize” the water had multiplied to 52. “Those fish got pretty good sized, so we harvested them and had a fish fry,” he said, with a laugh.

These aren’t stereotypical fish bowls, Bechtel pointed out. He’s developed three systems that can be purchased, beginning with a micro-sized suitable for elementary students or younger that includes a 2-gallon plastic container. It can support two fish (endlers or guppies are suggested) with a plants in netted cups above the fish. Biology students at Wartburg maintain a system like this to meet class requirements as a way to illustrate an ecosystem.

The 30-gallon system is a fish tank with a trough above the tank, and a 75-gallon size with a double-trough system that can be customized. An LED light is required and a water pump circulates water through the troughs and back into the tank that supports larger fish, such as koi. Crayfish, shrimp, catfish, tilapia, shrimp and mini lobsters are other possibilities. Each produces waste that breaks down into nutrients that feed the plants. Systems are accompanied by lesson plans that meet national science and agricultural standards.

After several years, Wartburg College administrators told Bechtel, “Mike, it’s yours, run with it,” he recalled, and he repays that encouragement with a percentage of sales.

Ioponics has limitless possibilities, Bechtel enthused. “There’s a teacher at Turkey Valley who hooked systems together and started breeding bluegill. Another teacher added a couple of hydroponics systems to make a 40-gallon system. You can set it up, add onto it, raise shrimp prawns – it really is limitless and fun.”

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