Western Dakota Tech Students Reach Finals in National Competition

Apr 10, 2018

Western Dakota Tech President Ann Bolman (bottom, far left) and Electrical Trades Program Director Bryan Mitchell (bottom, far right) with the student members of the aquaponics project team.
Credit Western Dakota Tech Marketing

A team from Western Dakota Tech reaches the finals in a National Science Foundation competition for community colleges. The team’s project uses electrical automation to provide organic food for communities in need. 

The project is based on a system called aquaponics. It’s a combination of aquaculture (raising aquatic animals for human consumption) and hydroponics (a method of growing plants in water rather than soil).

Bryan Mitchell directs the Electrical Trades program at Western Dakota Tech. He’s spent years brainstorming how to incorporate electrical automation into an aquaponics system. He says when Western Dakota Tech’s president encouraged faculty to try solving problems in their community, he brought the idea to his students.

“Our ultimate goal," Mitchell says, "is to get the automation system and the actual growing cycles put into such a way that we can make these available for communities to be involved with. Really all they would need to do is just set the system up, plant their seeds and provide the food for their fish, and then they will have the opportunity to feed themselves.”

The electrical automation allows the system’s lights to mimic the sun’s movement in the sky, as well as other controls for the fish and vegetable tanks.

Mitchell says his students took to the project enthusiastically and with no intention of taking the project beyond Rapid City. They found out about the National Science Foundation’s Community College Innovation Challenge just two days before the application deadline.

"That’s just a compliment to their commitment and passion for this project," Mitchell says. "They went from not having any clue about it on Monday morning to by Wednesday night having a polished project that got us to the finals."

The students are one of ten finalist teams from around the country. They’ll travel to Virginia in June to fine-tune their ideas with National Science Foundation members. The students also have the chance to present their projects to members of congress in Washington, D.C.

Mitchell says the team hopes this process helps them create a system to solve issues of food insecurity both in South Dakota and across the country.