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'Planting the Pond' Project Benefiting East Middle School & Western Dakota Tech Students

An innovative project called "Planting the Pond" by Western Dakota Tech (WDT) faculty members Kelsey Murray, Ph.D., and Bryan Mitchell, is teaching sustainability and conservation to East Middle School students in Rapid City and might even put them on the track to pursuing higher education and careers in related fields.

The same project has involved WDT students in many programs and is also benefiting them as they put what they learn in the classroom into action.

Dr. Murray is the Director of Environmental Engineering and Mitchel is the Director of Electrical Trades at WDT. They are Co-Directors of Controlled Environment Agriculture (CAE).

Planting the Pond came about when East Middle School Teacher Jason Cerny heard about the Electrical Trades student team from Western Dakota Tech winning 1st Place in the Fourth Annual Community College Innovation Challenge for their unique Aquaponics project. Cerny approached Mitchell and Dr. Murray about doing Aquaponics guest lectures at the middle school.

Aquaponics is a synergistic food production platform that combines techniques in aquaculture and hydroponics to simultaneously raise edible plants and fish. As a forward-looking technology, aquaponics responds to the current sustainability challenges of the 21st century, including limited arable land, constrained freshwater supplies, soil degradation, and soil nutrient depletion, by minimizing water use and negative environmental impacts. In aquaponics, there is a symbiosis among plants, fish, and microorganisms, water and nutrient reuse is maximized, and environmental impacts are minimized. Aquaponics is an integral theme within the Environmental Engineering Technology Program curriculum.

Dr. Murray and Mitchell agreed that partnering with the middle school would fit within WDT’s mission to find and create pathways for younger students into already-established secondary and post-secondary STEM education tracks and that provided an exciting opportunity to build upon the lecture concept. The WDT faculty members next applied for and received a $4,000 Youth Educator Grant from the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Program to start a “Planting the Pond” project with East Middle School in 2019.

Planting the Pond incorporates Aquaponics into East Middle School education, with the ultimate goal of increasing the number of students interested in STEM educational tracts and ultimately STEM careers. This farm-to-table concept in the classroom is instilling a mindset of sustainability and conservation into the current generation of students.

The project began with WDT Environmental Engineering, Electrical Trades, Computer-Aided Design, and Welding students designing, constructing, and implementing a medium-sized Aquaponics system in the middle school that had already integrated concepts of sustainable agriculture into its curriculum. Controlled Environment Agriculture students have also contributed greatly to the project in the last year.

Dr. Murray, Mitchell and their students have supplemented East Middle School curriculum with their Aquaponics expertise through demonstrations and interactive lectures. East Middle School instructors have utilized “Planting the Pond” in agriculture, sustainability, social studies curriculum that has benefited their students in all grades. Math courses will also incorporate the unique learning opportunity in the future.

“This has been a cool project because of the collaborative nature of it. It has been fun to see how students at different levels are benefiting from the project,” Dr. Murray said.

PHOTO CUTLINE: Photo courtesy Rapid City Area Schools. L-R: East Middle School 6th Grader Brecken Sasse, East MS Instructor Jason Cerny, East MS 6th Grader Kaylie McColom, and Western Dakota Tech Environmental Engineering Program Director and Controlled Environment Agriculture Program Co-Director Kelsey Murray.

About Western Dakota Tech

Western Dakota Tech was established in 1968 and is the only technical college serving the western South Dakota region.

Western Dakota Tech offers programs in a variety of fields, including Business and Computers, Construction and Manufacturing, Energy and Environmental Technologies, Health Sciences, Legal and Public Services, and Transportation Technologies.

Ninety-nine percent of Western Dakota Tech's most recent graduates are working, continuing their education, or are enlisted in the military. [Placement information is derived from graduate surveys, faculty-collected data, placement surveys started six months after graduation, and the South Dakota Department of Labor and Regulation. Overall placement rate is figured by: (responding graduates employed, continuing education, or in military service)/(responding graduates who are seeking employment). The number of program graduates are unduplicated by CIP code.]

Western Dakota Tech faculty, staff, and administration focus their efforts on helping students gain the skills and experiences they need to succeed. Through hands-on learning, internships, and industry partnerships, Western Dakota Tech students graduate ready to make a real and immediate contribution to their employers and to their communities.

For information about Western Dakota Tech, call (800) 544-8765 or (605) 718-2565 or send an email to Visit us on the web at

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