Nottingham School fourth-graders release trout into the Big Elk Creek
By Steven Hoffman
Fourth-graders in Scott Schaffer's class at the Nottingham School in Oxford spent eight months conscientiously raising brook trout from eggs in an aquarium in the classroom. While they did so, Schaffer incorporated lessons about science, ecology, and the environment. The students learn about the life cycles and habitats of the fish, and the importance of clean water.
Last week, the class released the brook trout into the Big Elk Creek.
This is the second year that Schaffer's class has taken part in this unique, hands-on learning experience was made possible through the Pennsylvania Trout in the Classroom program, which is an interdisciplinary initiative for students in grades 3-12. The Trout in the Classroom program partners with hundreds of schools throughout the country. Brook trout is the state fish of Pennsylvania, so the schools in this state get to play a part in boosting the population of the state fish. Each teacher who incorporates the program into their classroom instruction can design it to meet the needs of the students.
Jimmy Wisneski, a student in the class, said that the fish eggs were shipped to the Nottingham School in October. Even before that, the students were making preparations for their arrival. Schaffer and the students set up the aquarium. A filter and chiller are used to make sure that the conditions are ideal for the fish. The water temperature for the aquarium was carefully controlled and monitored to ensure that it was within one degree of the temperature of the creek so that the fish would be hatched and raised in an environment that is similar to the one that they would eventually be released into.
The entire experience of raising the fish is a scientific experiment on its own as the class makes numerous decisions based on what they are observing.
It’s also a learning experience for the students to raise a living thing from its infancy, providing the fish with all the necessities like food.
“We experienced the trout in their life stages,” said Brynn Wilmont, a student in the class.
This year, Schaffer explained, they put a GoPro camera in the tank with the fish so the students could see close up how they move through the water. Keenan Thomas, a student, said that he really liked watching the fish swim. His classmate, Evan Lester, said that the fish have pectoral fins that cut through the water. Schaffer noted that there is a lifting force to the way the fish move through the water, and it’s comparable to how a bird might fly through the air.
Like any scientific experiment, there is a certain level of unpredictability to raising fish in a classroom. Midway through the school year, the class had to change the filter system that was being used because some harmful bacteria got in the aquarium. Some of the bacteria settled in some of the rocks at the bottom of the aquarium.
“We had some challenges this year,” Schaffer said, explaining that the challenges weren't unexpected.
Figuring out how to rid the aquarium of the bacteria was one significant challenge. There were others. Gabe Duggan, one of the students in the class, said that some of the fish that were quicker to grow started to eat some of the smaller fish. At one point, Gabe said, they put a divider in the tank to keep the bigger fish together in one part and the smaller fish together in the other part. According to his classmate, Dante Franco, dividing the fish based on their sizes helped to protect the smaller ones.
Peter Graziano said that the students almost looked at it like a game when they were doing all they could to see how many fish they could keep for the release.
As a result of some of the challenges this year, fewer fish were being released into the Big Elk Creek than the first year that Schaffer’s class participated in the Pennsylvania Trout in the Classroom program.
However, the fish that did make it to the release date were larger and healthier than the ones that were released in the first year, Schaffer said. Overall, the class released 44 fish into the Big Elk Creek.
The students in the class had different aspects of the experience that they considered to be their favorite. Some liked feeding the fish the best, while others liked cleaning out the aquarium. Others liked having visitors come to the classroom to learn about the Trout in Class program.
Overall, the students who got to participate in the program―Schaffer estimated that there were between 45 and 50 students in two classes―were very enthusiastic about the experience.
“I thought it was pretty cool,” said student Ronnie Bednarz.
The students really enjoyed taking care of the fish―so much so that several said that they were going to miss the routine of caring for them.
“I wish we could have them a little longer.” said Ashley Ochoa.
Next year, Schaffer said, they might have one aquarium set up to repeat the process of raising the trout, while another aquarium might be added to keep mature fish so that, in the future, students will learn about what it's like to care for mature fish.