OCEAN SPRINGS -- In a greenhouse behind Ocean Springs High School, 500-gallon tanks are filled with tilapia and planter pots are full of tomatoes, peppers, basil and lettuce.
The water from the tanks helps hydrate the vegetables and the vegetables help filter the water.
The systems for moving the water are designed, built and maintained by students.
Ocean Springs High is home to the state's only aquaculture program -- students study the breeding, growing and harvesting of plants and animals in water environments.
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"When students stay in this program for three years, they can go right into a marine-based biology field," teacher Bryan Butler said. "They can take what they've learned here into college, then into the field."
The program, in its second year, will eventually be a three-year program. The first year, more than 150 students applied. Just 45 were chosen.
Next year, third-year students in the program will be able to do work at the University of Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Research Lab in Ocean Springs.
Now, Butler is awaiting delivery of trout so the second-year students can begin working with saltwater tanks, housed in a second greenhouse. It will be a challenge -- the saltwater environment will present many more factors to deal with, and more things could go wrong. But trial and error in learning to deal with real-world issues in aquaculture is part of the class.
The students designed and built the freshwater systems. Two of the tanks in the first greenhouse had no hydroponic vegetable planters on them -- the design attempted by those groups hadn't been quite successful so they were starting over. Earlier this year, to control a bug problem without using pesticides, which would flow into the tanks and harm the fish, the class released 8,000 ladybugs in the greenhouse. It was a lesson in bug control and watershed management at the same time.
The students maintain the tanks daily, and take turns coming in on weekends and school breaks.
Before building their tanks, students also helped prepare the greenhouses and even built a retention pond.
"We're trying to get them to learn every part of this," Butler said. "The main thing is to get them out, get them doing things and not just sitting behind a desk."
The students grow the fish to market size, and plan to give both the fish and the vegetables to the school's culinary program. Both are part of the school's career and technical education.
Stephanie Carter, a senior who plans to major in biochemistry, took the class because she wanted a hands-on program.
"I love seeing the tomato plants, they're just starting to sprout," she said. "It's exciting, it's like I've really done something."
Heather Davis, a junior who would like to be a veterinarian or marine biologist, said she had enjoyed measuring fish to see how they've grown.
Thomas Alan Foreman said he enjoyed seeing the plants' and fishes' progress.
The trout Butler is awaiting are at the GCRL. He's hoping to get them in the next few weeks and maybe eventually have a tag-and-release program, which would be one of very few at a high school.