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5th Graders Leave Something Tangible & Growing Behind at Hawley Elementary


Thursday will be bittersweet for some Hawley Environmental students. They’ll celebrate completing 5th grade, but leave behind a fledgling club and a project they helped create.
5th graders Caroline Vandervest and Eli Ross are two of those students who helped form the Aquaponics Club.

They’re quietly bursting at the seams with excitement, as they walk me into the school’s greenhouse and the school's second floor. Eli says before they – the after school Aquaponics Club got their hands on it – the space was a mess!

“The floor used to be covered with dirt, but we cleaned it. And we took a lot of stuff that was stored in here and moved it downstairs into a little closet. Eli says.

The after school club was teacher Casey McEvilly’s idea.

“His classroom is on the other side of this wall, and he’s our math teacher,” Eli explains.

Eli says they spent a lot of time watching videos what showed how other aquaponics systems were put together. He says it gave the club ideas how to design their own.

Final checks of the system were underway when I visited – an intricate system of tanks, pumps and connecting tubing steadily circulates water throughout the system. Fish and plants had not yet been added. Eli says eventually lettuces and tomatoes will thrive here; along with seven beautiful koi.

Classmate Caroline Vandervest delights in the arrival of the fish most of all. She points out the giant blue tank they will call home. "Animals are just way more interesting than plants; they DO stuff," Caroline says.

5th grade teacher Lesley Zylstra was another spirit behind the greenhouse-to-aquoponics transformation. It started with a small system she tried to set up in her classroom.

“Nobody came help me put it together; so eventually I found Imagine Aquaponics. They helped put the ideas into action. Being in the field that they are, they knew that there were grants available through the Aquaponics Association. After that we were able to apply for a smaller grant from Milwaukee Public Schools,” Lesley says.

Molly Stanek & Jesse Hull provided expertise and donated some of their own materials to the Hawley project.

Jesse Hull and his partner Molly Stanek ARE Imagine Aquaponics. They consult with businesses around the globe, but working in this glass capsule with grade school kids was too good to pass up.

“It’s really exciting for us to scale all of the knowledge that we have gained back to the level in which you’re making an impact in the community. And to see the kids get as excited as they do. I can’t wait to see the looks on their faces when they eat the produce coming out of the system. It just changes their viewpoint of where food comes from,” Molly says.

Jesse Hull says he wanted to make sure the system is as fail safe as possible.

“The last thing we want to have the kids come in one day and find their favorite fish floating at the top of the tank. So we did things to keep that from happening,” Jesse says.

So, they installed a dual-pump system. If one goes out, it automatically backs the other one up.

No one wanted to say it, but fish and plants will not incorporated until the next Hawley school year begins. Caroline Vandervest and Eli Ross will be 6th graders at other schools by then. Eli faces that reality philosophically.

“ I think it’s going to be cool, if I ever visit here, I can come in here and say ‘I helped build this’. I kind of want to have that feeling that I made a big difference at the school,” Eli says.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.