Stout and students have aquaculture down to a science

Metropolitan Campus senior Ashley Clarke holds up one of the Australian red-clawed crayfish that Dr. Joseph Stout’s biology class grew in an aquaculture system. Also known as “freshwater lobsters,” these crayfish can grow quite large and can weigh more than a pound. 

Story and photos by Dan Landau

This article is one in a series delving into faculty/student research across a variety of disciplines at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Metropolitan Campus and College at Florham.

Mention science class and people’s eyes start to glaze over as they remember dissecting frogs in high school and memorizing the difference between mitosis and meiosis for a test. That’s not how things work in Dr. Joseph Stout’s classes. As a biology lecturer at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Metropolitan Campus, Stout has the uncanny ability to engage his students in the subject matter, whether they are science majors or not. He even reaches students who may have balked at science class in the past. 

Stout’s methods to interest his students are on full display in his “Intro to Aquaculture and Hydroponics,” class — a second year lab science class in which students learn about farming aquatic animals (aquaculture) and plants (hydroponics).

The class revolves around a system of interconnected water tanks in Stout’s lab with large red-clawed crayfish from Australia, ornamental shrimp, and various plants living in them. Although the course is listed as a biology class, Stout takes a decidedly interdisciplinary approach to teaching it, covering both the biological aspects of observing and caring for the animals, as well as the business side of running an aquaculture or hydroponics operation. 

Above: Joseph Stout, biology lecturer at FDU’s Metropolitan Campus, checks the plants in the aquaculture system he built to teach his students how to raise crayfish and shrimp. 

“The final project for the class is a business plan,” says Stout. “The biologists in the class work on the biological aspects and determine what is needed to keep the organisms living while the business and hospitality majors develop marketing plans and budgets, based on the supplies the biologists say they need.”

The interdisciplinary approach works well given that the class attracts students from a variety of majors. “I get hospitality and business majors who say they hate biology and they never want to take biology,” says Stout. “Then they come into my class and they say, ‘Oh, I am liking biology more now. Some aspects of the science I am not so interested in, but I am very interested in writing the business plan’ and with the popularity of the farm-to-table movement, they think this is actually something they could do as part of their future.”

Ashley Clarke, a communication major in Stout’s class this past spring, says, “I really enjoyed the class. We learned about a lot different aspects — the social and environmental aspects of bio-filtration and economic sustainability, which is pretty interesting. It’s nice to get hands on experience and I feel like I am learning more than I would with just textbook work.” Classmate Anna Gomelauri, a criminal justice major, concurs, saying that she enjoyed Stout’s class because his class is “always hands on,” which is exactly Stout’s goal. 

“Using a lab manual, if you have seen the results of an experiment once, you have seen all the results of that experiment,” says Stout. “Whereas, what I am doing here has so many added variables and I never know what to expect. I myself am constantly surprised by the results I get. And then, I have to explain the results to my students and it teaches them science in context. I think it makes it more interesting for students because it is more exciting to deal with a problem and help solve it.”  

One of the problems the class had to deal with was managing the pH (acidity) levels in the aquaculture system. Since water in small-enclosed systems tends to become acidic, and the acid would eat away at the crayfish’s hard exoskeletons, eventually killing them, Stout and his class put marble (limestone) chips into the tanks to keep the pH levels high. The marble chips act as a buffer to prevent excess acidity (low pH), but then the pH swung too high (alkaline), which created a toxic situation for the crayfish. To fix this, Stout and his students added peat moss — which is naturally acidic — to the system; the peat moss acts as a buffer to prevent excess alkalinity in the water.  

The combination of marble chips and peat moss works as a natural double-buffered system keeping pH neutral without the chemical additives used in many commercial systems. Some of Stout’s students discussed this experience in a presentation to the Bergen County Chemical Society this past spring.

As part of another class project, Stout and his students also created posters for the Metropolitan Campus’ Earth Day celebrations describing how aquaculture is a way to create a sustainable food supply and discussing class experiments, including one that examined crayfish hiding spot preferences. Since crayfish like to hide, they compared different types of hiding places and observed which ones the crayfish chose. 

Now, Stout is doing research on the ornamental shrimp in the aquaculture system with a few students to test various antioxidants’ ability to reduce UV-induced stresses (e.g. skin cancer). “The goal,” says Stout, “Is to create a method for testing the ability of compounds to decrease the damage done to DNA. This would be relevant to reducing the danger of skin cancer and the aging effect of the sun on people.” To do this research, Stout and his students are going to expose the shrimp to ultraviolet lights and compare visible mutations in the shrimp to DNA damage revealed with gel electrophoresis.  look at the visible mutations it causes in the shrimp.

Going forward, Stout will continue to use the aquaculture system when he teaches the class again in the spring. 

Feature Story from the FDU Newsroom

FDU Office of Public Relations

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FDU Office of Public Relations

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