After graduating nearly 20 years ago from the University of Central Arkansas, Emily Harris is back on campus putting in work for her doctorate in interdisciplinary leadership.

The program, she said, is all about learning how to gather people together to work alongside one another with a goal of reaching a better common good for everyone.

‘I know that sounds kind of cliche but it really is," Harris said. "It’s a total effort to have a better world."

While each of them have different beliefs on what makes the world better, Harris’ perspective is focused on sustainable agriculture and cultivating leadership qualities in adolescence to take the roles of leaders — and getting them ready for that in the future.

"To me, the best way to do that is through sustainable agriculture and the best sustainable agriculture that I have found is these aquaponic systems," she said.

Harris contacted J.D. Slye of Slye Gardens LLC to help with the project.

Slye said aquaponics is a food production system that combines conventional aquaculture — snails, fish, crayfish and more — with hydroponics, which cultivates plants in water, in a symbiotic environment.

"In normal aquaculture, excretions from the animals being raised can accumulate in the water, increasing toxicity," a leaflet Slye passed out to guests reads. "In an aquaponic system, water from an aquaculture system is fed to a hydroponic system where the by-products are broken down by nitrification bacteria into nitrates and nitrites, which are utilized by the plants as nutrients."

After that is completed, the water is then recirculated back into the system.

With issues Arkansas is facing like highly toxic polluted chemicals and kids going hungry, Harris said being able to teach sustainable agriculture, and specifically through aquaponics, opportunities are provided to not only learn the leadership aspect of the maintaining process, but the dependence on food supply chains is reduced, someone’s ability to grow healthy nutritional food is created and the potential for economic growth is generated.

While building the system can be a bit costly and time consuming, Harris said the day-to-day operation costs almost nothing. She said the water is recycled, the nutrients come from the fish and resources are constantly re-utilized.

Nine months ago, Harris was given permission from UCA to use a specific area of the greenhouse behind Lewis Science Center to begin her project, which also incorporates students in an undergraduate environmental health problems class.

The project was able to continue even further when, through a grant from the University of Arkansas Extension, University of Pine Bluff Extension Aquaculture Specialist Bauer Duke was able to provide Harris with live catfish and crayfish Thursday.

Harris said the group will plant organic basil, lettuce, dinosaur kale, tomatoes and snow pea seeds in baskets secured in floating trays. The plant roots will hang down into the water and the crayfish in the water will trim the root ends keeping the plants healthy.

She said her dream for the future is to get a full sized greenhouse with a full sized system up and running to provide fresh food for the salad bar in the cafeteria.

"Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing for the school to be able to grow their own vegetables," Harris said.

That being the focus of her dissertation, she said everywhere that there is an institution where people are housed or they come often and gather, food is needed and aquaponics systems can create independence and total freedom.