Engineering club pushes to keep greenhouses for aquaponics research

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UT Aquaponics has been approved for a $17,000 Green Fee grant to renovate two campus greenhouses, which students use to grow plants and farm fish in a sustainable environment.

This student run project is a relatively new method of soilless farming, UT Aquaponics member Kirstie Yong said.

“Producing crops through aquaponics can save up to 90 percent of water used in traditional farming methods,” mechanical engineering junior Yong said.

The Green Fee is a competitive grant program that funds sustainability projects by UT students, faculty and staff. Megan Fitch, UT Aquaponics project lead, said the group applied for grant money to add features and repair flaws, including missing glass panes that exposed the greenhouse to the environment.

The group works under the student organization Engineers for A Sustainable World. Their research is done in a shared space devoted to student projects in the two greenhouses by Hogg Auditorium. 

Environmental science senior Fitch said the group was originally concerned that renovating the greenhouse would make it appealing to professors looking for spaces to conduct future research.

“If the greenhouses were fixed up too nicely, it’s possible that professors with multi-million dollar research grants would want to move in, and we would essentially be kicked out,” Fitch said. 

A benefit of the Green Fee grant is that the students are guaranteed access to the improved greenhouses for at least five years.

Fitch said the group has struggled to improve their facilities in the past as a result of strict regulations, such as one that blocked their attempts to regulate the temperature in the greenhouse.

“We had put (shade cloths) on the outside of the greenhouse to reflect sunlight before it even got inside to reduce that heat,” Fitch said. “UT told us it looked unaesthetic, and we had to take it down.”

Construction is currently underway on a new greenhouse facility on the roof of the Norman Hackerman Building that will replace greenhouses in Welch Hall. Welch Building Manager Steven Moore said he expects the project to be done in December but unforeseen delays can and do happen
in construction.

“We’re at the point now where we feel reasonably confident we can get it completed and utilize the holiday break to do the transfers from Welch to new facilities,” Moore said. “It’s a lot easier to get things done without 35,000 undergrads on the street.”