When the holidays wind down and schools go back in session, kids in some Western North Carolina classrooms will have more to look forward to than just books and lessons. For some, the first day back at school will also be a reunion with the tank full of trout sitting in their classroom.
“It’s just pretty cool to have a tank of fish to watch grow over the course of the year,” said Ben Davis, a science teacher at Robbinsville High School who’s in his fourth year participating in Trout Unlimited’s Trout in the Classroom program.
The Tuckaseigee TU chapter has been dealing with classrooms, kids and trout since 2014, when it first dipped its toes into the national organization’s Trout in the Classroom program. Basically, the program allows classroom teachers — through a partnership with TU — to get rainbow trout eggs from the state fish hatchery, raise them up into small fish over the course of the school year and release them into stocked waters nearby.
In its first year, TU got just one classroom to sign on, that of eighth-grade teacher Jeff Zamzakias at Cullowhee Valley School. It’s hard, said longtime Tuckaseigee TU member Craig Forrest, for teachers to commit to the project, and the reason why is quite understandable.
“Really it hinges on having a teacher willing to devote the time and energy to doing it, because it does take a lot,” Forrest said. “Especially the first year, setting up the aquarium.”
Participating in the program requires obtaining and setting up a 60-gallon aquarium, complete with a filtration system and a chiller to keep the water cool. TU provides the funds and the equipment — about $1,200 to get started and $400 for supplies each year after that — but much of the work falls to the teacher.
Now in its second year, TU has had a few more takers. Max Lanning’s class at Blue Ridge Early College got its eggs just this month, and Ben Davis’ science students at Robbinsville High School also started with the Tuck TU chapter, as the chapter it had been working with in Graham County no longer exists. Davis’ program has also found support from the Graham County branch of the N.C. Farm Bureau and the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina.
It is indeed a lot of work, said Davis, an avid angler himself, especially when it comes to cleaning out and setting up the tank each year. But it’s easy for him to see the program’s value.
“It really is enjoyable — much more so than a tank of goldfish,” Davis said. “It helps connect my students to a resource that they may take for granted and gives them an insight into the natural world.”
When a classroom receives its eggs — transported from the fish hatchery in Brevard by TU members — the first task is to get them to hatch. Every day, students have to monitor the water chemistry and pick out the dead or unfertilized eggs from the basket holding them near the tank’s surface.
Within a couple of weeks, the eggs hatch into “sac fry” — small fish that still have part of the egg sac attached to their abdomen. Once the fish have absorbed the egg sac and begun swimming near the surface, it’s time to let them out of the basket and give them the run of the tank.
That’s when students have to get serious about chemistry, figuring out how much to feed the fish so they’re nourished without gunking up the water more than necessary. TU provides a chemistry kit that allows students to test for parameters such as pH, nitrogen and ammonia, and the whole process gives the teacher an opportunity to talk about topics like the nitrogen cycle, a fish’s life cycle and the importance of clean water in a much more meaningful way than would be possible with textbooks alone.
“This program has a great educational value,” Davis said. “I can use the trout to discuss life cycles and development with my biology students — there are usually some mutants or genetic defects, and that is always interesting. Since we have to maintain a certain environmental balance within the tank, my physical science students monitor chemical composition, pH and temperature of the water, and we relate that to the natural environment and effects of pollution. In years past, my students have put together lessons on aspects of trout life cycles and conservation and presented to younger classes, giving them valuable public speaking and presentation skills.”
Sometimes, things don’t go exactly as planned. This fall, Davis’ class mysteriously lost half of its fish. That’s unfortunate, but dealing with the results had some educational value of its own.
“This gives us the chance to play detective and use science to figure out what happened to our fish,” Davis said.
They ended up figuring out that the fish died due to a spike in nitrogen levels, perhaps due to low populations of nitrogen-reducing bacteria. Luckily, Davis’ class was able to get some replacement eggs from the fish hatchery to make up for the deceased.
Come springtime, the classes will get to celebrate their fish-raising accomplishments by releasing the trout into the water. There are limits on where, exactly, they can be released — because they’re non-native rainbow trout, they can only be let go in streams where rainbow trout have already been introduced — but generally speaking success in the wild is better for Trout in the Classrooms fish in WNC than elsewhere in the state, Forrest said.
“Statewide here in North Carolina there were very few classes that had successful releases last year,” Forrest said. “You go down east and the water quality is terrible down there. We’re blessed with really nice water here.”
So, by the time spring rolls around, Forrest hopes to see big batches of little trout ready to make their way into WNC waters. And, too, for the area to one day reap the results of students who have grown up learning firsthand about the importance of water and its inhabitants.
“When I was growing up, I think all the kids had a home aquarium, but nowadays I don’t think it’s done that much, so it gives them exposure,” he said. “I think this is probably one of the most beneficial projects we do as a Trout Unlimited chapter.”