Interview: Cristen Lain at Lane Tech High School Aquaponics Program

2 fish

Chicago has now become the home to several aquaponics facilities, including a teaching lab established at Lane Tech High School on Chicago’s northside.  We recently asked Cristen Lain, the Academic Center & STEM Coordinator at Lane Tech, to tell us about Lane’s Tech’s aquaponics lab, and their remarkable, highly innovative program.


Cristen Lain

Academic Center Coordinator & STEM Coordinator 

Lane Tech High School, Chicago

**Photos by Lena Grundhoefer/ Lane Tech HS Photo Student**


Chicago Farm and Table: How did Lane Tech High School come to have an aquaponics lab? What has been your experience working with the program – what made you choose aquaponics?

Cristen Lain: This year, Lane has an almost entirely new administrative team with a wide range of experience and a lot of good ideas.  One of those ideas was our STEM wing, which included the aquaponics room.  We received support from the Lane Tech Century Foundation, the Lane Tech Alumni Association, and 312 Aquaponics in order to get off the ground.

CF&T: How does it function as part of the STEM Program at Lane Tech?

CL: Lane teachers have been successfully implementing our ‘Alpha’ STEM program for years.  The aquaponics lab gives us another way to deliver the best STEM experience in the city to our students.  It is the perfect channel for fostering a true STEM curriculum.  STEM, in my opinion, is best taught by integrating science, technology, engineering, and math as opposed to teaching them separately.  Our room can be used as a teaching tool for biology, environmental science, chemistry, horticulture, engineering, art, math, technology, nutrition, business, and other subjects.



CF&T: Can you describe how aquaponics works?

CL: Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (growing plants in water without soil) in one integrated system.  Waste water from the fish tanks is pumped into our plant beds.  In the plant beds, bacteria and red worms convert the waste into food and nutrients for the plants. The plants then suck up those nutrients while cleaning the water before it’s cycled back to the fish. It’s the nitrogen cycle in action – ammonia from the fish waste is converted to nitrites, then into nitrates that are food for the plants.


CF&T: Why is this method of farming desirable or even necessary?  Are there advantages to aquaponics over ‘rural’ farming?

CL: There are many advantages including water conservation, organic farming, and being able to grow a large amount of produce in a small area.   We can also grow food that’s not in season – we’re eating strawberries off the vine in December!

Aquaponics also provides a method for growing food in areas that aren’t conducive to traditional farming.  As a result, cities can have better quality food that traveled a minimal distance.   Aquaponics can also be used to provide food in areas that are labeled as food deserts – regions that have minimal access to healthy, fresh food.



CF&T: What are the disadvantages?

CL: That’s a tough one.  We ran into a few technical issues while getting the system up and running, but they are worked out for the most part now.  I don’t see many disadvantages to a working system like this…. Unless you have a problem with a lot of fish poop…

CF&T: What produce do you grow now, and what will you be adding to your assortment in the future?

CL: We started off by letting the kids choose what to grow, so we have a pretty large array right now.  We have Genovese basil, swiss chard, tomatoes, squash, rosemary, beans, strawberries, pineberries (white strawberries), microgreens, sorrel, beets…. We are also growing fruit trees!  Last I’ve heard, we are the only Aquaponics facility in North America with an orange, lemon and lime tree.   In the future, we’ll be branching out and attempting an even larger variety.  For example, our 7th and 8th graders are going to starting to experiment with edible flowers.  Part of the purpose of the lab is to foster the students’ imaginations, so we’re going see where they want to take it.
We will also be working with local restaurants and growing requests that they may have.



CF&T: Do the students view the lab as a business model as well as a scientific and engineering experiment?

CL: That’s the intent.  As we start getting students who are taking the second and third level Aquaponics classes, we’ll be implementing that concept.  Once they finish learning about the systems in the level 1 class, they’ll start looking at other concepts like business models in upper level courses.  Students in the level 1 class are already experimenting with engineering ideas and designing new systems.  Some of them had some impressive ideas.

CF&T: Are the produce (and fish) sold for consumption in grocery stores?

CL: We will be working with a few local restaurants to sell our produce and fish.  We hope to set up some consistent relationships with chefs. We are also considering a Lane farmer’s market where we would sell our produce and fish to the community.

CF&T: How many students are participating in the course right now?  Are there requirements to get into this program at Lane Tech?

CL: We currently have approximately 150 students in an Aquaponics course.  The pre-requisite is biology.  But we have many other students involved with the lab who aren’t enrolled in the course.  We have an Aquaponics club for our academic center students.  These students will be utilizing the room in other creative ways including art and technology.  Some of our biology classes are also utilizing the room.


CF&T: What have you noticed as far as what the participating students are taking from this experience? What do you hope they learn by taking this course, and being a part of this program?

CL: Some of these students are growing things for the first time.  They get very excited watching their seeds grow – some have been caught talking to their sprouts.  But it’s great because they’re starting to make a connection between what they’re growing and the food that they eat.  I hope that they begin to understand how it’s all connected and that what they learn in this class has a direct impact on their lives.



CF&T: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel visited the school recently, and toured the aquaponics lab.  What was his reaction to what you and the students are doing?

CL: He seemed genuinely impressed.  I know he was familiar with aquaponics before his visit, but to see a facility like ours in a CPS high school is still exciting.  The hard work our students and staff dedicate to Lane and the lab is evident to anyone who visits.  Some of our 7th graders gave him some of our Lane-grown basil (see pics on the Lane web site).  I should follow up with him to see what he thought.

CF&T: How do you envision the future of aquaponics, both in Chicago and in other parts of the world?

CL: Aquaponics is viable solution producing enough food to keep up with our exponentially growing population.  Here at Lane, we’re hoping to help those who have been running aquaponics farms for years to expose the public to the possibilities the farms provide.

As aquaponics gets more exposure and more people understand the benefits, I hope that we’ll see more systems used as both educational tools and as food sources.



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