Herring Gut: Where business stimulates learning

Jasper and Sam clean fish tanks

Jasper and Sam clean fish tanks

On a Friday afternoon in early March, Jasper, a RSU #13 middle-school alternative education student who is Fish Hatchery Manager for a business called School of Roots, reports that there was “only one dead fish,” in the tanks this week. Everyone around the classroom table at Herring Gut Learning Center in Port Clyde nods. This is good news,  since over the Christmas break a build-up of ammonia in the tanks had wiped out quite a few of the tilapia raised here.

Next, Bobby, the greenhouse manager, announces that the lettuce harvest was good, with a few heads showing signs of light deprivation. But Dayton’s water-quality report indicates that the water flowing throughout the system has been testing within acceptable ranges for ammonia and nitrates.

Taylor, Vaughn and Dayton listen to a department report at a weekly School of Roots business meeting.

Taylor, Vaughn and Dayton listen to a department report at a weekly School of Roots business meeting.

The students around this table have developed a good understanding of how fragile this aquaponic system of cultivating plants and fish in a re-circulating environment can be. Theirs is an education that has come from hands-on exploration of how and why such a system succeeds or fails. In the process they’ve learned fish anatomy, plant biology, math, chemistry and ecology. They’ve been guided by Herring Gut’s marine science and aquaculture educators, Ann Boover and Alexandria Brasili. But the “great strides” in learning these teachers say they have seen in these students over the school year is in large part due to the compelling business focus of School of Roots.

“These students are taking ownership here in a way they don’t in other aspects of their education,” says Brasili, who developed the business plan behind the program. “We work to instill a work ethic, teamwork and a sense of responsibility.”

Will shows off healthy lettuces

Will shows off healthy lettuces

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday the students arrive ready for action, each tending to his or her assigned role with no apparent special urging from their teachers needed. Tanks are cleaned, fish fed, water tested, lettuce harvested and washed, growing trays scrubbed. The lettuce is then delivered to customers, among them Harborside Market in Tenants Harbor and Thomaston Grocery Store. Their treasurer, Vaughn, keeps a careful eye on the finances —weighing costs against revenues throughout.

What happens when the school year draws to a close?

“We shift to our First Work Experience program,” Brasili says, “because the tanks still need tending!”

The summer workers—local teens 13-15 years old—get paid a small stipend for their efforts, which is a good incentive to arrive on time ready to dig into the daily chores. “There’s some continuity from the school year,” Brasili notes, “so those experienced students become mentors to those who have never been involved with aquaponics before.”

In addition, the summer program involves planting and maintaining traditional vegetable beds located behind the center. The workers also learn how to manage a business. They continue supplying school-year customers with produce, but, in addition, they staff a Thursday market from 10am to 3pm at the site of Port Clyde Fresh Catch on the Marshall Point Lighthouse Road just past Factory Road.

“At the end of the program a representative from Goodwill Industries works with the teens to help them understand how to use this work experience to build a resume or how to talk about it effectively in a future job interview,” Brasili explains. This is another instance, she adds, of experiential learning at its best. —JW

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