Trout in the Classroom program reels in students
This past week, on a day marked by occasional spitting rain and overcast skies, nearly four dozen Butler Junior High School students traveled to Thorn Creek in Butler County.
Unlike anglers who go to the water looking for trout, they were taking their fish with them.
The students released 125 brook trout fingerlings into the stream. They had raised the fish from eggs over the past six months through the Trout in the Classroom project, an endeavor that aims to teach students not so much about fish or how to catch them but about the importance of clean water, healthy watersheds and human impacts on the environment.
Participating classrooms get 250 to 300 brook trout eggs and a season's worth of food in early November. Students put those into 55-gallon or larger aquariums and raise them, watching as they progress from eyed eggs to sac fry feeding on their own yolks to fingerlings. They release them into approved trout waters in April or May.
Don't call it a stocking program, though.
“Sometimes people misconstrue this as a trout stocking program, and it's not,” said Justin DiRado, education and outreach coordinator for the Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited, which sponsors the program in partnership with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and local groups. “It's not about turning kids into biologists or fishermen, either. We just want to give them the information and tools for a conservation mindset or background that they can take into their community.”
“The most important thing we stress is connecting students with the importance of coldwater resources,” added Amidea Daniel, Trout in the Classroom coordinator. “The ultimate goal is to educate students about how we as humans can impact waterways and the environment and how we can enhance it.”
The message, or at least interest in sharing it, is getting out.
When the program began in the 2006-07 school year, there were 11 classrooms statewide participating. Last school year there were 187, providing 19,000 students with more than 7,000 hours of instruction on fish management, watershed health, habitat needs, the life cycle of fish and more, Daniels said.
This school year there are 225 classrooms participating. The list includes dozens of schools locally, including elementary schools like Trinity North and South in Washington County, middle schools and junior highs like Greater Latrobe and Ligonier Valley in Westmoreland, Hopewell Memorial in Beaver and South Park in Allegheny and high schools such as Homer Center in Indiana and West Shamokin in Armstrong.
Dave Andrews' science class at Butler has been involved for five years. As many as 150 students participate in a given year, whether by feeding fish, monitoring water quality in the school's tanks and in Thorn Creek, or getting involved in some other way.
“The kids absolutely love it,” Andrews said. “It's one of our most popular programs.
“And it's such a neat curriculum. I praise it all the time. I tell all of the teachers I meet, if you can do it, if you can swing it, it's a great program.”
That's because it provides a bridge between the chemical, molecular and genetic brand of science taught in classrooms now and real-world biology, said Tim Lloyd, chair of the science department at Norwin High School, which launched a Trout in the Classroom program in its freshman honors biology class this year.
“There are some kids who may be inclined toward fishing or hunting or the outdoors anyway, but there are a lot who aren't,” Lloyd said. “This gives them some understanding of the natural side of things. It gives them a practical connection.”
Schools often incorporate the program into disciplines other than science. At Butler, in coordination with the history department and others, students taped interviews with one another to document what they learned. At Norwin, students produced video, including some with underwater footage, of their experiences.
There's fun to be had, too. A lot of schools tie the release of their brookies — chosen because they are Pennsylvania's native trout species — to other activities, such as fly tying and fly casting demonstrations, electroshocking exercises and mini-paddling sojourns.
“There are so many different avenues teachers take with it. It's fascinating for me to get out and see and hear what they're doing and what the kids think of it,” Daniel said.
Andrews, vice president of the Connoquenessing Watershed Alliance when he's not teaching, said the program is popular enough at his school that it added a second fish tank this year. He expects it to stay strong into the future.
“We're in this for the long haul,” he said. “It brings together everything we're trying to teach, and the kids just can't get enough of it.”