Dubbed AgWorks, the new 6,100-square-foot center is a living laboratory built into the old atrium of the former PSECU headquarters in Harrisburg. CCA, a cyber charter school with about 9,200 students statewide, purchased the 180,000-square-foot building in 2016 for $5 million and has spent about $12 million renovating the facility to support growing enrollment needs.
AgWorks, which officially opened Tuesday, is already the largest known public educational aquaponics facility in the country. The facility, which was funded by a federal grant and designed by Harrisburg-based Integrated Agriculture Systems, or INTAG Systems, uses fish waste and water to fertilize vegetables, plants and trees in climate-controlled spaces.
There is no dirt and no pesticides, and the system is designed to treat and re-use its water.
School officials see AgWorks — a research facility that can grow about 3,000 plants and trees and house more than 400 tilapia, koi and prawn — as an early hands-on laboratory experience for students interested in agricultural careers, or other science and engineering fields.
“We want to partner with employers and meet labor demands,” said Tom Longenecker, the school’s COO.
CCA also is exploring two other educational centers it wants to build in Pennsylvania that would be centered around specialized training for students who aspire to work in medical and technology-related careers.
“The bigger piece of K-12 education is preparing kids for adulthood, whether that is for college in a four-year program, a certificate program or an associate’s degree,” said Maurice “Reese” Flurie III, CEO of the school. “Students need real-world labor skills for commercial settings and this can help cut down on the time to develop those lab skills.”
CCA has been able to expand its enrollment over the years because it provides a more flexible online learning environment for students that isn’t tied to the traditional school day schedule.
Flurie and Longenecker said the new centers are designed to take that learning experience a step further, which could help grow enrollment even more. Students can come in and work in the lab. They can also monitor the growing systems remotely to track progress of plants.
“First and foremost this is a research facility,” Flurie said.
However, it also provides some food production for a handful of local restaurants and the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank. AgWorks can provide various produce items, including tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, herbs and microgreens, as well as tilapia. It is raising koi fish that it makes available to landscapers, and eventually the plan is to add prawn, catfish and sturgeon.
The indoor facility also is growing various fruit trees, including lemon, mango, banana and fig trees.
A small research and development lab is located adjacent to the main system where students and faculty can test various “light recipes” — the amount and type of light — to see what impact they have on plant color, crop yield and taste.
Some plants in the aquaponics system can go from seed to harvest in a matter of days or weeks, depending on the variety, while tilapia can take six to nine months.
As the system expands this winter, Flurie said the plan is for students to work closer with local restaurants on supply chain and grow more of their seasonal requests.
The AgWorks facility also will be publicly accessible for tours and field trips for other schools.
“We want the students to do the tours, the PR and marketing,” he said.
In addition to the research lab, the AgWorks facility also will house tissue culture and genetics labs for student learning.
CCA also still has about 40,000 square feet of space available in the building that it hopes to lease to other businesses that can provide internship and mentorship opportunities for its students.
“This building was vacant for two years. We’ve brought it back to life,” Longenecker said.