Holy Cross School, Champaign, becomes pioneer in the study of aquaponics

Among the dignitaries who attended the ribbon cutting for the Tryon Aquaponics Tower at Holy Cross School in Champaign was Miss Wisconsin Angelica Niemann, who went to the University of Illinois and ran on a platform of "Eat Right, Future Bright." Joining principal Greg Koerner at the other end of the ribbon is fourth-grader Lydia Durdan, third-grader Camille Christhilf, and fifth-grader Emma Lwao. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

CHAMPAIGN — With the snip of an oversized pair of scissors, Holy Cross School took a giant leap into the future as a new Tryon Aquaponics Tower and lab was blessed on March 24. It is only the second such tower in the country and the first one in Illinois.

The Tryon Aquaponics Tower is made of PVC piping and incorporates LED lighting and rotating plant trays. Not show are the tanks that will house tilapia, a vital part of the nitrogen cycle that makes it work. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

Aquaponics is a method of growing plants using a water-based, nutrient-rich solution instead of soil. So rather than being “farm to table” the goal is to be “tower to table.”

The new tower is built from PVC piping and uses LED lights, rotating plant trays, and fish tanks that will house tilapia.

“The plants and the fish work together to give nutrition to one another,” said middle school science teacher Judy Crull. “It is the whole nitrogen cycle.”

The pioneering effort, which is based on an idea that is said to be thousands of years old, is the brainchild of Dick Tryon, CEO of Tryon Technology. He was unable to attend the ceremony in person, but was present via video feed.

“The concept of the growth of the child is what hit Dick’s heart,” according to John Calderon, retired president of DNDC Technology Co. and a steward at the Champaign parish and school who has worked with Tryon.

“Dick was going to do this and I was going to make it happen no matter what,” Calderon said. “What prompted Dick to say, ‘I’m going to donate it,’ is a conversation about how we educate our kids at Holy Cross.”


“It will go across the curriculum,” said Greg Koerner, principal. “It won’t just be used with the science classes, but with the health classes, with the economics classes, with the art classes. . . . There will be a mural that shows the nitrogen cycle that the students are going to paint.”

“It will go across the curriculum. . . . It won’t just be used with the science classes, but with the health classes, with the economics classes, with the art classes.” — Greg Koerner, principal

He is eager to share what they learn with the 42 Catholic schools in the Diocese of Peoria.

And with Holy Cross serving as a feeder school for The High School of Saint Thomas More, also in Champaign, it became that much more valuable to put the Tryon Aquaponics Tower there and “keep this moving,” Calderon said.

The cost of the tower and tank is $1,500, which covers the materials needed, Calderon said. The Rotary Club sponsored the first one and the Eric Meyer family, longtime supporters of Holy Cross School, have donated the second tower that will be built by the students this summer.

The lab can accommodate a third tower and that is something Holy Cross hopes to add.


“We are extremely excited here. My staff is extremely excited for this possibility,” Koerner said. “When we were able to announce that this was a done deal, I had five teachers step forward and say, ‘I want to be on the curriculum team.’”

Father Joseph Donton, pastor, blesses the new Tryon Aquaponics Tower at Holy Cross School in Champaign on March 24. While they are looking forward to pioneering the curriculum that will be used and involving the students, he said they also want to use the plants and fish harvested to feed the hungry. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

Taking the lead with Crull is Meghan Burgess, a fifth grade teacher who has a master’s degree in curriculum development.

Crull said they’re still researching what plants they should use and has heard that leafy plants may grow best. “We’re going to have to experiment to see what works and what doesn’t work real well,” she told The Catholic Post.

“We want to tie in a nutritional aspect to it,” Crull added. “When we do start harvesting, Mr. Koerner would like to see that possibly being used in our school lunch program. If we get bigger than that, we would like to be able to donate to the St. Vincent de Paul Society or the Daily Bread Soup Kitchen.”

As the tilapia multiply, they may provide another food source for donation,” she said. “This is still a learning process for my curriculum team.”

Before he sprinkled holy water on the aquaponics tower and the people gathered for the blessing, Father Joseph Donton, pastor, prayed that “through the work of our hands and the help of technology, we collaborate with the Creator to improve the earth as a dwelling place of the human family . . . and carry out Christ’s mandate to follow him in serving one another in love.”

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