Senior Project Goes From the Classroom to Costa Rica

Senior Project Goes From the Classroom to Costa Rica

Students apply engineering principles to design affordable and sustainable aquaponic system

Friday, February 12, 2016

Four engineering seniors recently laid the groundwork for a sustainable aquaponics system expected to produce fresh vegetables and fish for a community in Costa Rica.

But for members of Project Oasis - Siddharth Nigam, Paige Balcom, Will Tavares, and Allison Wood – the hope is the system they designed in the classroom will serve as a model for communities across the globe.

“This design can be used to produce food more efficiently than traditional growing methods,” said Nigam, who spent a week in Uvita with his classmates over winter break. “It’s especially useful in land or water scarce urban environments and in rural communities without the means to produce or access food.”

Aquaponic systems combine the growing of fish and plants without soil. Currently, systems are either expensive or smaller do-it-yourself designs. The group is applying engineering principles they learned at UNH to make the system more affordable and sustainable. In Uvita, vegetables are too expensive for the locals to buy and the soil is too poor to grow.

“Our family sized aquaponic systems will hopefully help the locals get a reliable and sustainable source of vegetables,” said Nigam.” Additionally, it will give them a source of protein from tilapia.”

During their initial visit, students took measurements to determine the size and shape of the system, and explored the viability of energy and water sources. This included taking multiple water samples for testing. The team consisted of three mechanical engineers - Nigam, Balcom and Tavares - and one environmental engineer - Wood.

From their observations, they formed an action plan for a return trip in June to begin implementation of the system. The group also coordinated with Forjando Alas, a local after-school program for at-risk kids of the Bahía Ballena community in Uvita. The program provides a safe space for kids to learn life skills, and gain enrichment through art and environmental education.

The time spent with the students in the village was one that was most rewarding for Balcom.

“I loved meeting the people, especially the kids at Forjando Alas,” she said. “Everyone was so friendly, welcoming, and excited about the project.”

Balcom recalled an 11-year-old boy telling her that he loved eating tomatoes. She then told him that he would be able to grow his own tomatoes and eat them fresh off the plant.

“His face lit up in a huge smile,” she said. “It was really rewarding to see how we can apply our engineering knowledge to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Funding for the project was provided from Project Oasis’ third place finish in the student category at the Social Venture Innovation Challenge. Additional funding was provided by the Ocean Engineering program, a grant from the Emeriti Council, and funding from a class project.

The project idea originated during the students’ freshman year before they were eventually connected with Forjando Alas.   

“We wanted to do our senior design project on something that would impact developing nations,” said Nigam. “Learning to navigate a new culture while following a constrained timeline provided challenges, but, they were worthwhile experiences as well.”

Nigam said more than a dozen UNH juniors are interested in continuing the project during the following school year to ensure its long term viability.

Project Oasis is collaborating with the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture (COLSA) and the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station (NHAES). The students are receiving mentorship from COLSA faculty members Todd Guerdat and Andrew Ogden, and constructing their aquaponics project in the NHAES’s Macfarlane Research Greenhouses.

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Civil and Environmental Engineering
Mechanical Engineering