A group of UCF students have spent 18 months building an aquaponics system for the Bithlo community.

Student volunteers from the UCF club Engineers Without Borders designed and are building the elaborate system that will benefit the students at Orange County Academy, a private school serving at-risk youth in the east Orange County community. They showed off the project to the young students on Thursday, explaining how it will work and how they will help operate it.

“It’s going to grow vegetables for the students, and it will raise fish that will be protein in the kids’ diets,” said Mathew Coalson, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering who is leading the project.
UCF Student Volunteers Build Aquaponics System for Bithlo ‘Food Desert’UCF engineering students explained the aquaponics system they built to children from Orange County Academy.

The aquaponics system is the latest addition to Transformation Village, a cluster of facilities meant to improve the lives of the roughly 8,300 residents of Bithlo. In addition to being a food desert without close access to fresh foods, the largely rural community struggles with poverty, pollution and water-quality issues.

With help from volunteers, Transformation Village, a project of the nonprofit United Global Outreach, has brought services that previously could not be found in Bithlo: a library, coffee shop, salon, community center, computer lab and a health center that provides services on a sliding scale.

The aquaponics system will be the latest addition.

Aquaponics combines the hydroponic method of growing plants with fish farming, joining the two in a symbiotic system. Traditional fish farming requires the removal of waste that builds up in the water. In aquaponics, plants grow in the water – either directly or indirectly – and filter the water in the fish habitat, providing a more efficient and sustainable process that doesn’t require the use of fertilizers.

The system designed and created by the UCF students includes five handmade fish tanks – four 125-gallon tanks and one 300-gallon tank. The tanks will house tilapia, and the water they’re swimming in flow through a container garden where tomatoes, lettuce, peppers and other vegetables and herbs will grow. It’s expected to be completed within the next two weeks, and begin sprouting its first veggies in the spring.

The food it will eventually provide will supplement vegetables from an existing container garden that UCF students have also been maintaining.

The project is designed to provide intellectual sustenance, too. Working with administrators at Orange County Academy, Engineers Without Borders is working with UCF professor Laurie Campbell to design a hands-on aquaponics curriculum that will be taught to students in Bithlo and in other schools.

Roughly 14 members of the group have been volunteering their time to work on the project nearly every Saturday for the past year and a half. Most, but not all, are electronic or mechanical engineering majors.

The aquaponics system cost about $15,000. That’s more expensive than the typical system, because of features that were included to make the system more academically engaging for Orange County Academy students.

Funding came from donors, including UCF’s Student Government Association, Whole Foods of Winter Park, CHS Inc., the East Orange County Rotary Club, a grant from the Clinton Global Initiative and support from individual contributors.

The project is just the latest by UCF students to benefit Bithlo, which sits about eight miles from the university’s main campus. College Democrats have previously teamed with College Republicans for what came to be known as “Project Bithlo.”