There’s a big difference between learning about something from a book and seeing it happen right before your eyes.
That’s something that high school students in Hamilton and Corvallis are experiencing this year thanks to some help from Bitterroot Trout Unlimited and the Rapp Family Foundation.
The new partnership made it possible for the two schools to join in a nationwide program called “Trout in the Classroom” that allows students to experience the journey of rainbow trout from egg to fingerling.
A few months of ensuring that water temperatures, pH and ammonia levels remain in balance is already reaping educational benefits that could be long-lasting.
Logan Harrison is a freshman in Vanessa’s Haflich’s science class at Hamilton High School who has taken an interest in ensuring the young trout survive long enough to be released into the pond at Hamilton’s Hieronymus Park later this year.
“Conducting water quality tests and taking care of these fish is probably the thing I look forward to the most every week,” Harrison said. “I am now interested in possibly pursuing a related career because of this project.”
Harrison’s classmate, Mya Winkler said: “In caring for these fish, I have learned just how important it is for aquatic organisms to have a healthy water system to survive. If the water chemistry is off even a little, there can be a dramatic impact on the fish's health. This program taught me how fragile wildlife can be.”
Corvallis High School science teacher Jeff Kaiser has seen a similar reaction in his classroom.
“The student engagement has been great with this project,” Kaiser said. “Students come in every day anxious to see what the fish are doing.”
Many of Kaiser’s students had already heard him talk or read about a trout’s life cycle, but seeing it happen right before their eyes is a totally different experience.
“Students can get bored when you’re saying stuff to them, but that all changes when you tell them to go perform an ammonia nitrate or dissolved oxygen test,” Kaiser said. “It’s one thing to talk about it and totally a different thing to actually see it.”
Kaiser has known about the Trout in the Classroom project for years and wanted to add it to his curriculum, but the school district didn’t have the funding to make that happen.
Bitterroot Trout Unlimited Vice President Dave Ward said a generous two-year grant from the Rapp Family Foundation made it possible to add the 55-gallon aquarium with a chiller and other equipment necessary to keep the water suitable for young trout.
“One of our missions as a chapter is to provide educational outreach,” Ward said. “We became aware of the Trout in the Classroom project that was being used around the state and nation. We decided it would be a good thing to do here locally.”
Ward and his wife picked up the eggs from the Jocko River State Hatchery at Arlee that were provided to the schools under a license issued by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
“They gave us 100 eggs for each classroom,” Ward said. “The kids have really enjoyed it. The teachers have done an outstanding job in making sure the fish are monitored on a regular basis.”
The hope now is to expand the program to four additional classrooms next year. The expansion will be funded by the Trout Unlimited Embrace a Stream Program.
Bitterroot Trout Unlimited is currently looking for additional classrooms for next year, Ward said.
Over 5,000 classrooms in 35 states participate in the Trout in the Classroom program annually.
Caring for the fish fosters a conservation ethic in students and the act of walking to a waterway and directly releasing the fingerlings into the water makes a concrete connection between caring for the fish and caring for the water.
“So many of my students have never seen a fish before,” Kaiser said. “This may be the first time they’ve ever seen a rainbow trout. It can make an impression on them.”