Merrill High School team overcomes barriers to claim aquaculture championship during pandemic

Olivia Dachel, a Merrill High School teacher who attended Sea Grant’s R/V Denis Sullivan educators’ cruise in 2019, has used knowledge she gained through Sea Grant to help her students go on to greater things. Her team of students took home the grand prize in the 2020 Aquaculture Challenge competition cosponsored by Lake Superior State University in Sault St. Marie, Michigan, and Michigan Sea Grant.

The students actually won two awards, one for Best Overall Integrated Design and another for Technical Savvy. Teams were challenged to research and create an automated system for fish and plant growth that could be marketed and sold to homes or businesses. Students submitted a business plan and video pitch, engineered a fully functional aquaponics system, and created and programmed automated monitoring systems to maintain system health and productivity using a circuit board, temperature, light and ammonia sensors.

Merrill High School aquaculture team captain Drew Polak stands next to the team’s winning project. Image credit: Drew Polak.

Team Captain Drew Polak said, “Our goal as a team was simple: to provide a functional and stylish aquaponics system to encourage a happy and healthy lifestyle.” 

The Merrill team competed against 23 others from Michigan and Wisconsin, totaling over 300 students in grades 9-12. The contest is designed to engage high school students in an interdisciplinary learning competition of science, business and computer science. The competition centers on the concept of providing sustainable, local food to meet the demand for fresh produce and seafood in local markets.  Aquaponics is now deemed critical to help the food supply chain in the current crippled global trade and economy caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture, which is growing fish and other aquatic animals, and hydroponics, which is growing plants without soil. To be successful, an aquaponics unit must carefully balance nutrients, fish, bacteria and plants. Anything out of balance will cause the system to collapse.

Judges applauded the students for their creativity, intelligence and grit as they overcame immense challenges presented by the pandemic to complete the project.

Polak said, “This project really put our skills to the test. It was an amazing experience for me and my teammates. It was challenging to coordinate pickups for components the other team members were working on as well as having to undergo the turn-in process virtually. It was a difficult road, but we endured, and it paid off.” 

Dachel said, “It was a dream project to integrate disciplines of science, computer science and business to solve a read-world problem. I am so proud of the resilience, creativity, intelligence and problem-solving abilities of my students to not only complete, but win this competition during such a difficult time. I am truly inspired by my students and feel fortunate to work with them.”