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Baldwin-Whitehall students get hooked in science class

| Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

More than 100 trout swam in a large, dark tank just feet away from Riley Konesky, as she listened to her sixth-grade science teacher share the day's lesson.

“It's amazing,” Riley, 12, said as she pulled out a chart listing details about the history of the fish since they arrived at her school four months ago. “It's really cool to watch them as they get bigger and bigger.... At first, you could not even see them, they were so tiny.”

Sixth-graders at J.E. Harrison Middle School in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District are raising dozens of brook trout in their classroom.

They watch them grow and learn about cold water ecosystems, feeding habits, water temperatures, pH levels and how small changes can impact survival.

“Little things in the water can affect the living things that are in it,” sixth-grade teacher Michael Bilbie said, and that's an important lesson for the students to learn.

“It is important that we protect our waterways,” Bilbie said.

Baldwin-Whitehall partnered with the Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's Trout in the Classroom program, which provided the fish eggs and guidance for the initiative, sixth-grade science teacher Jeff Reffert said.

Harrison is one of six schools in Allegheny County to participate in the program, according to the Trout in the Classroom website.

The district for years has had several fish and outdoor offerings for students, with clubs and programs such as Family Tyes, which teaches fly fishing components, officials said.

District leaders in the last year have been working to incorporate more science, technology, English and math, or STEM, initiatives into classrooms at Harrison, with a “Wonders of Water” theme, Reffert said.

How this will be incorporated at each grade level starting next school year still is being worked out, Principal Michael Wetmiller said.

Students in Bilbie's class, where nearly 300 trout eggs were received in November, have attempted to name some of the fish. They often walk in with questions, mostly wanting to know how many survived overnight.

Viewing the fish as pets is frowned upon, Reffert said, because trout have such a high mortality rate. When they arrived in his classroom in November, 203 eggs out of 289 were alive.

About 120 fish are left in his classroom — and that's a good rate of survival.

The 55-gallon tanks must stay at a continuous 52 degrees, with routine feedings for the fish.

“It's been a learning process,” Reffert said.

In April, all of the Harrison sixth-graders will head to the Wingfield Pines conservation area and to The Outdoor Classroom in Upper St. Clair for two days of outdoor activities, and to release the fish.

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or

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