Students in a hands-on fish education and conservation program can experience a serene sense of purpose, nurturing baby trout in the classroom before eventually releasing them into a mountain stream. They can also witness scary things that go gulp in the night.
Dana Hershey, an active facilitator for Trout in the Classroom, chuckled as he recalled a fish “named Monster, at Charlotte Country Day. They suspected him of cannibalizing some of the other fish: He was bigger than the other fish. Sometimes the fish count could go down when Monster was around.
“It’s all about the circle of life,” Hershey said.
Trout in the Classroom is about a lot of things – mostly connection, conservation and caring. The program, active at 58 schools in North Carolina, puts life sciences in the hands of K-12 students who raise trout from eggs to fry (small fish); monitor tank water quality; study stream habitat; learn about water resources and conservation; and learn about ecosystems.
“What I liked most about TIC is that you could see the trout grow, because it reminded me of having a schoolwide fish family,” said Logan Yuhas, a fourth-grader at Charlotte Country Day School. “I definitely enjoyed the cute little fish scrambling for food and the life of the trout. It felt like a connection to everyone else.”
Clarissa Marshall teaches seventh-graders in life sciences at Greensboro Day School. In her third year of leading the TIC program there, she’s increasingly impressed that students “can invest in their studies so much more than anything they’re reading from a book or even just a single, isolated field trip – the fact that this is an ongoing experience.”
A flagship program of the national Trout Unlimited’s Youth Education efforts, TIC works this way: A Trout Unlimited volunteer brings a trout tank to the school, sets it up and delivers the trout eggs to the school in early autumn and works with the teacher to provide the best water quality for the fish.
Water quality and the condition of the trout are monitored daily. In the spring, the teacher and students can go on a field trip to a state park to release the trout and witness what it takes for fish to survive in the wild.
Hershey, a retired anesthesiologist from Charlotte who’s with the Rocky River chapter of Trout Unlimited, said the program usually lasts for the whole school year. “We like to get the tanks running in August so that the bacteria is set up on the filters and on the gravel. They’ll help digest ammonia that’s produced so it doesn’t build up.
“Then we bring the eggs from the Erwin National Fish Hatchery in Tennessee, then we pick them up at the Marion Hatchery (in McDowell County) in North Carolina. We take them around in bags on ice and take them to the schools and put them in a little basket in the tank in September. They usually hatch within two weeks.
“When they’re big and strong enough to come up to the surface and feed, we let them out into the main tank. In May, we take them up to one of the state parks.”
On the day of release, “the rangers put on a wonderful program for the kids. Students will go into the stream, turn over rocks and seine the water for insects and crustaceans and learn about what it takes to have a healthy habitat for trout – where they tend to live, how they feed.”
He said the program has a one-time fee of $500. Every year after that, “the program is maintained for as long as the school wants to participate,” Hershey said.
Myriad science lessons
TIC can be tailored to various school age groups and disciplines. It can be used to teach younger students basic science principles such as living environments, life cycles and seasons. High school students can study water chemistry, the nitrogen cycle, natural resources, geology and ecology.
Older students can test for pH, nitrites, nitrates and ammonia; pH “should be in the 7, 7.6 range,” Hershey said.
Testing for ammonia is essential. “Nitrates and nitrites break down from ammonia, so if there’s no ammonia you don’t have to do the other tests,” he said. “Ammonia comes from fish excrement and uneaten food. Overfeeding is one of the biggest ways of killing the fish. You get a lot of food in there and it breaks down, and the ammonia levels go up.”
Logan Yuhas said he learned the importance of water maintenance, that too much waste “makes algae form, which clogs the water purifier – so no more trout.”
Hershey said he wants to see more public schools become part of the program.
“Some of those kids at public schools have never been on a field trip to South Mountains State Park. They’ve never seen anything like it. My vision is to try to find teachers in the public school system who would love to use this as a jumping-off point for education.”
Participating Charlotte-area schools: Cannon School lower and middle (Concord), Charlotte Country Day, Charlotte Latin, Community School of Davidson, Davidson Day School, Lincoln Charter School, Northwest Cabarrus High, Providence Day School, Quail Hollow Middle.
More information: Dana Hershey, Rocky River Chapter of Trout Unlimited, firstname.lastname@example.org. Or visit www.rockyrivertu.org.