Trout In The Classroom

Fannin County Middle School students the first in Georgia to learn hands-on lessons raising trout in this TU program.

Nick Carter | February 1, 2007

Do you remember your seventh-grade science class? Were you able to grasp an understanding of — or even care about — the role microscopic bacteria plays in an ecosystem? For the scientists out there, the answer may be yes, but for the average seventh grader, studying bacteria is about as exciting as… well, studying bacteria.

But that was before Trout Unlimited’s Trout in the Classroom (TIC) program gave students a reason to take an interest in the factors that affect an ecosystem. It gives them a hands-on, down-and-dirty look at water conditions, and a reason to understand — and care about — the biological needs and life cycles of fish. The program has an embedded emphasis on conservation, so the children will realize the importance of preserving our natural resources, as well. And hopefully, they will gain an appreciation and a sense of stewardship for the state’s waters.

On October 9, Fannin County Middle School life-science teachers Tony Tichler and Jeff Weaver launched Georgia’s first TIC program with support from the Blue Ridge Mountain Chapter of Trout Unlimited (TU) and the local school board. They say it has sparked a new level of enthusiasm in their students, and they are having a great deal of success raising rainbow trout from eggs.

“I’ve been fishing all my life, and I’ve never seen a fish hatch,” Jeff said. “This is a real-life application, something the kids can see and be a part of.”

From the time the eggs hatch, the kids are involved in every step of the trout-raising process. They are responsible for cleaning the tanks, testing the pH and chemical levels in the water, feeding the fish and keeping an eye on the water temperature. Having the children involved in raising the fish gives Jeff and Tony a tremendous opportunity to tie in what’s going on in the fish tanks with the lessons in their life-science curriculum.

Much of the work in the TIC project falls upon the shoulders of students. Some of the Fannin County seventh graders involved in the program are, from left, John Thurman, Caleb Patterson, Patch Hrehl, Adam Miller, Kelsie Ware and Alice Holden.

They taught cellular division while the trout were hatching, and the kids actually got to see it happen in front of their faces through the lens of a microscope.

“They’re like little round balls with heads poking out,” said seventh grader Alice Holden. “The coolest thing is seeing them swim out of the egg.”

Also through a microscope, the children have taken a close look at some of the dead fish to identify their various body parts, and to inspect their gills and skin for any diseases that might have caused the death. A stark lesson on bacteria was learned when insufficient levels of waste-eliminating bacteria in the filter system caused the amonia level in the water to rise, resulting in a minor fish kill.

“It kind of helps you understand what they need and don’t need. It tells you what they need as far as like bacteria in the water,” said student Caleb Patterson.

Natural selection was witnessed first-hand when one of the fish in Tony’s tank — a monster 3-incher — started eating the smaller fish, and the variance between the physical appearances of the fish made a good example for a genetics lesson.

“It’s amazing how the fish are totally different,” said student Patch Hrehl. “We have light fish, dark fish, big fish and small fish. They’re all different.”

The list of lessons to be learned from the small, enclosed ecosystems in the two classrooms are endless. Before the classes take a March field trip to release the trout in the Toccoa River, Tony and Jeff plan to use them to teach the kids about insects and their life cycles, niches in ecosytsems, conservation and the food web, among other things. The trout can also be used to peak an interest in classes other than science. TU suggests the fish be used as a learning tools in math, English and reading classes.
For example, Tony and Jeff said the kids could determine the percentages and mortality rates of the trout or the volume of the tanks in their math classes. They could also read or write about trout in their English classes; that way they get the required literature lessons along with a healthy dose of conservation on a subject in which they have a hands-on interest.

“What we’re looking for is for the other teachers to jump on the bandwagon,” Tony said. “We’ve had some success at that. Some of the teachers are more willing to take part than others.”

For the trout anglers in the class the program is especially attractive, and with all the clean, cold trout water around Blue Ridge, there are plenty of young anglers at Fannin Middle School. Raising trout from eggs gives them an appreciation for where the fish they catch come from, and hopefully after they release the fish they have raised, it will give them a sense of ownership of the resource, Tony pointed out.

“Seeing the fish develop is pretty cool. Seeing them develop from that size, to the size when you catch them is cool,” said John Thurman, a young fisherman.

“You know, when you catch them and they’re 16-, 18- or 20-inches,” he added to a chorus of groans from others in the room.

With most of the fish still measuring less than an inch long, they have a long way to go before they reach the sizes John claims to catch, but with an attainable goal of releasing about 300 fish from the 1,000 eggs they started with, the teachers and students are pleased with the results halfway through their first stab at the program. Surprisingly, for such an effective learning tool, the costs were relatively low because of several organizations that provided financial backing.

Blue Ridge Mountain TU provided some funding through raffles and rounded up a group of sponors that includes: North Georgia Trout Online, Atlanta Flyfishing Club, High Meadows Club and Georgia Women Flyfishers. Those organizations helped raise the $2,000 to purchase two set-ups for the two classrooms. Among other things, the necessary elements are a 55-gallon aquarium, a chiller to keep the water at a temperature between 55 and 59 degrees, filters, pumps and aerators to inject oxygen into the system. TroutLodge, a commercial fish hatchery in Washington state, provided the fish eggs free-of-charge, Wayne Probst with Georgia DNR and Water Gardens, a local company, provided technical assistance and Benny Cross, the middle school custodian, looks after the fish during vacations, evenings and weekends.

“It wasn’t hard to drum up support. We just let it be known what we were doing, and it was pretty easy to get these groups involved,” said John Pool, president of the Blue Ridge Mountain TU Chapter. “It’s a good educational and environmental opportunity… If they’ve seen these fish grow from eggs, take them out and release them, they’ll have an interest in these trout and a stake in the river. They’ll grow up to be the stewards and TU members of tomorrow. The whole key to success is having teachers interested in doing a little extra work.”

Although it is new for Georgia, TIC has been going on around the country for years. It was started in New York in 1997 and has spread to 25 states since then.

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