By Aïda Rogers
Sometimes what looks like failure is actually an unexpected kind of success. Perhaps you didn’t accomplish what you set out to do, but you accomplished something else, also powerful and precious.
Such is the story for 14 Honors College students and their professor Joe Jones, who tried to build a lasting aquaponics system and reflection pond for the children at Palmetto Place Children’s Shelter in Columbia. Serving neglected and abused children from kindergarten through high school, Palmetto Place offered Jones and his students a piece of land large enough to construct a 600-gallon aquaponics system and reflection pond.
When completed, the system would give the children so much. Besides a tranquil place that could quiet troubled young minds, it presented a “closed-loop” system of food production: fish make waste that fertilizes plants, which makes fresh water for fish. The children would plant and pick strawberries, sweet potatoes, lettuce, and herbs, and watch beautiful koi swimming in the pond. Jones’ MSCI 599 students would learn architecture, engineering, carpentry, AutoCAD, ecology, and budgeting—with its poster winning second place in Discovery Day’s Environmental Sciences category in 2016. The Palmetto Place children would learn their food doesn’t come from grocery stores, and harvest fresh produce for their table.
Alas. The students met problem after problem. Rainstorms and leaky valves delayed the project, a tractor blocked their work site, a stray cat might have been responsible for the disappearing koi. Months after its installation, run-off problems required the system’s dismantling. Jones vows to try again next spring with another Honors Service Learning class, perhaps with another community partner.
“We built it from the ground up and when you do things like this, you hit road blocks,” explained Jones, an environmental health science professor who manages USC’s Green Quad. “It took three times as long as we thought it would.”
He does not consider the effort a failure. As he sees it, his students—in unrelated majors from engineering and public health to biology and marine science—did a rare thing. They created a community. Only that way, he’d learned from U101, could they resolve issues that would occur.
“It’s about peers teaching each other,” he said. “They solve problems differently. As a class, I kind of guide them. It’s hard to prepare and teach because you can’t anticipate what Sally is going to know about and what Bob is going to know about.”
After visiting City Roots, a Columbia farm with a large aquaponics system, the students each designed and presented their own individual systems. Then they separated into groups and created one system that incorporated the best features from the earlier designs. “In 75 minutes they did it,” Jones recalled. “The different groups converged on the same idea.”
Armed with a $3,200 integrative learning grant from the Center for Teaching Excellence, the students visited hardware stores and nurseries to buy components for their system. Serendipitously, student Katrina Hounchell used her employee discount at a local pet shop to buy the koi.
What followed came practical hands-on lessons every time class met, as they built plant boxes, lattice work and a plumbing system. “Marine science students don’t necessarily know how to use a drill or hammer—they had all these 33.4-degree angles,” Jones recalled. “Engineering kids knew 45-degree angles would work.”
But then came the joy. Erin Hall, ’96 SCHC mass communications, knows all about that. As Palmetto Place’s executive director at the time, she’d talked to Jones’ class about the difficult circumstances her young residents already had endured, and their need for stability. When she showed up at USC’s Green Quad one Saturday while the students were building the system, the children from Palmetto Place “were climbing all over her,” Jones remembered. “It was obvious they love her.”
Hall had her own motives for bringing the children, many of them teens, to watch the students work. “Many of them had never been on a college campus before and they’re in high school,” she said. “So to walk on campus and say, ‘Oh, this is what a college campus looks like; this is what college students are doing; this is pretty cool’—I think it shows them college is an opportunity. Some of our kids don’t know college is an option. So just to be exposed to it for one day—that’s huge.”
The Palmetto Place children helped the USC students on campus and at the shelter. They helped dig the six-foot hole for the pond and prepare boards for building. Jones witnessed his students becoming teachers. “They got to work with these kids who don’t see a lot of applied math and science. When measuring and cutting wood, they were talking about fractions. These are the things you can’t expect when you teach a class like this.”
David Berry, ’17 SCHC biology, soaked up the experience. “Through this course I reaffirmed the fact that I want to teach,” the Spartanburg native said, adding he plans to get a master’s in teaching. “I learned how to work well with others who had differences in opinions, and I learned we should always way-overestimate how long something is going to take.”
Indeed, even with three three-hour work Saturdays that continued into last summer, the system wasn’t quite completed before the Fall 2016 semester. Jones, undeterred, carried on. He had already learned the 2016 MSCI 599 class was with him entirely. They had proved themselves forever on St. Patrick’s Day 2016, when the shelter kids came to watch and help.
“We were supposed to work from 9 to 12, but all the class stayed until 1:30,” he marveled, describing how festively dressed students walked by them to Five Points as they labored. “They explained what they were doing and were left behind, but didn’t seem to care. I was really worried that I’d hear, ‘we hate you, and you will know about it in our class evaluations,’ but there wasn’t one word uttered that they didn’t appreciate what we were doing. The kids were there, the shelter kids. It’s fun to go to Five Points on St. Patty’s Day, but I think they recognized the relevance, the importance of what they were doing.”
The mastermind behind the whole project was Susan Alexander, SCHC director of undergraduate research and an academic adviser. She recommended Palmetto Place as the beneficiary of Jones’ service learning class.
“Building relationships with faculty and community partners and then discovering the perfect connection between the two is a wonderful part of my job,” Alexander said. “I couldn’t imagine a better partnership than the one between Joe Jones and Erin Hall, but most rewarding were the relationships established and mutual learning experiences between our students and the residents at Palmetto Place. This entire process was truly a highly successful service learning experience for all and one I hope Dr. Jones will soon offer our students again.”