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USM’s Thad Cochran Marine Aquaculture Center Offers Ocean Springs High School Students Unique Classroom Setting

Fri, 09/15/2023 - 09:27am | By: Gabriela Shinskie

USMBryan Butler has a smile on his face when talking about his aquaculture program at Ocean Springs High School (OSHS) and its unique collaboration with The University of Southern Mississippi’s (USM) Thad Cochran Marine Aquaculture Center (TCMAC) located at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory (GCRL). The program offers OSHS sophomores, juniors, and seniors a hands-on experience like no other.

Butler teaches Aquaculture 1 to sophomores, in which the students interact with freshwater tanks containing striped bass. Aquaculture II consists of juniors receiving speckled trout and red drum. In Aquaculture III, seniors work closely with Megan Gima, Oyster Hatchery Manager at the TCMAC, as interns.

“I want them [students] to get an overall knowledge of the biology world, even if they don’t go into the field,” said Butler. “I have students that come in and attach to certain tasks. I’m getting my students ready to go into that type of career and to help Megan over at the research lab.”

Gima concurs and sees the collaboration as an inspiration for the students’ potential future in the field of biology, but also in the blue economy.

OSHSThe program started in 2014 when the Mississippi Department of Education asked Butler if he was interested in starting an Aquaculture program along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, eventually expanding across the state. At the time, Butler had been teaching Biology and Marine Aquatics at OSHS while working at GCRL.

Butler accepted the challenge and started with one greenhouse and five aquaponic tanks on each side. Over time, the class size increased. Butler wrote a grant to obtain more greenhouses. Today, he has four; two greenhouses are saltwater and two are freshwater.

Aquaponics is a system of aquaculture in which plants are grown without soil. Waste from fish and other animals grown in the system provides the nutrients to the plants that would otherwise come from soil. In turn, the plants purify the water for reuse by the fish.

OSHSFor year one, students learn about freshwater environments and begin preparing their aquaponic systems for receiving striped bass. Each group of students is assigned a tank and the group brainstorms unique names for their tank. Catchy fish tank names include “Lady Gar Gar,” “Highway to Whale,” “Charles Garwin” and “Fintastic Four.”

“Every year we start them off with a plan of how they would like to do it. They get together in their groups and brainstorm the food production they would like to include in their system,” said Butler.

Year two students take their knowledge of a freshwater environment over to a saltwater environment with speckled trout. Year three students apply their knowledge and research over to the TCMAC with Gima, where they get to work with many programs at the Center such as the oyster program, finfish program, algae and live feeds.

“Our hope is to have students who come through and discover if they have an interest in pursuing aquaculture.  Every year we have students who are eager and ask about available positions and when they can start working. This is a great feeder program for TCMAC but also a recruiting tool for USM,” said Gima. 

Many students who complete the aquaculture program at OSHS move on to become students at USM or hold part-time and even full-time positions at the Marine Aquaculture Center. The advancement of the Aquaculture program at OSHS has contributed to many students’ successes in the sciences. 

“We have this evolving shift of what the blue economy looks like,” said Gima. “Now, with everything that the Mississippi coast is bringing in, a focus on developing new technologies, it is opening up and attracting people to these jobs and helping our local economy.  

Butler said because of Gima, his students return to class big-eyed and excited to talk about their day at the Center. His class feels a sense of ownership because of the many programs they can participate in.

Butler and Gima’s hope is to see the aquaculture program expand to more schools in Mississippi.

“Everything that the kids are getting to experience at the research lab is so good for them,” said Butler.

Learn more about the Thad Cochran Marine Aquaculture Center.

Photos submitted by Bryan Butler.