NEW HAVEN (AP) —
Cynics believe modern schools have gone to the dogs, but they can’t say that about New Haven Elementary.
It has gone to the trout.
Students and teachers at the little Mason County school have gone bonkers over a school of baby brown trout. The fish, hatched from eggs last fall, swim in a refrigerated aquarium located in a room dedicated solely to their existence.
“We call it the ‘Trout Lab,”’ said Shayla Blackshire, the fourth-grade teacher who brought Trout Unlimited’s Trout in the Classroom program to New Haven. “This is where students from all the grades come to observe the trout and take part in caring for them.”
A large mural of a lake filled with swimming trout occupies the wall behind the aquarium. A large trout-themed rug cushions the floor in front of the 55-gallon tank. A video camera beams the young fishes’ every movement to classroom video screens throughout the school, and to the school’s website.
Fishing-themed artwork adorns the room’s other walls. A cabinet houses equipment and chemicals necessary to keep the tank’s water chemistry stable. A central table provides a place for students to write in the “trout journals” they all keep.
“As luck would have it, we had an empty classroom this year, and we decided to put the trout in there so that students from all our classes could come and go without disrupting any one teacher’s routine,” said Stacy Bissell, New Haven’s principal.
The inspiration to become involved in Trout in the Classroom came last spring, when Blackshire watched a televised news account of students releasing trout they’d grown during the winter and early spring.
“I searched the Internet and found the contact information for Jack Williams, who coordinates the program for the TU chapter in Charleston,” Blackshire recalled. “He told me we would need to do two things before we could get involved with the program — come up with the necessary funding, and find someone who would volunteer to monitor our tank.”
Blackshire approached her father-in-law, Steve Blackshire, who works for United Rental, a company that helps supply American Electric Power’s nearby Mountaineer plant.
“United Rental had been looking for a project that would give back to the community, and the company agreed to fund the equipment, plus sponsor the field trip we’d need to take to release the fish,” she said.
With the tank, the chiller and all the necessary chemicals secured, Blackshire recruited two colleagues, second-grade teacher Laura Cullen and fifth-grade teacher Jacque Richardson, to help spearhead the effort. A Trout Unlimited member from Millwood, Ted Klingensmith, agreed to monitor the project.
The three teachers worked after school for two weeks to assemble, test and prepare the aquarium.
“There we were — three women, a box with a tank and a box with a chiller,” Blackshire said. “Well, we read the manuals, and we figured most of it out by ourselves.”
Raising young trout from eggs can be a ticklish business. The water mustn’t be too acidic or too alkaline, must be free of chlorine, must be kept near 60 degrees, and must be monitored to make sure fish waste doesn’t turn the water toxic. The three teachers got a crash course in Trout Chemistry 101 while setting up the tank and preparing it for action.
The trout eggs, roughly 125 of them, arrived Oct. 28 from the state’s Edray Trout Hatchery. They had to be kept in a darkened box until they hatched, and students had to peer through a tiny hole to observe them.
Rick Johnson, New Haven’s technology integration specialist, devised a solution that allowed anyone in the school to watch the eggs anytime they wanted.
“Rick rigged up infrared lighting and set up an infrared camera so we could see into the box,” Blackshire said. “When the eggs hatched, we were able to put it on all the classes’ ‘smart boards’ so the students could watch it live.”
After the eggs hatched, Johnson rigged a “trout cam” that allows any teacher in the school to show live streaming video of the goings-on in the aquarium. Visitors to the school’s website, www.edline.net/pages/New—Haven—Elementary—School, can click on a link at any time and watch the fish, too.
“This is Trout in the Classroom on steroids,” said TU’s Williams. “What they’re doing at New Haven, especially with video technology, is really creative.”
One of the program’s main goals is to teach youngsters the value of good water quality. “Mr. Williams has a saying,” said Richardson. “If you take care of the water, it takes care of you.”
Well, most of the time, anyway. Over the holiday break, all but 19 of the trout in the tank died.
“We have no idea why,” Blackshire said. “Our temperature was good, and our water quality was good. We’ve since learned that the same thing has happened at other schools with this batch of trout.”
Despite the setback, school officials held a special “Trout Night” Jan. 6 to show the program off to parents.
“We found out that families at home were always checking out the webcam stream, so we invited the parents in so they could check it out for themselves,” Cullen said. “We ended up having 88 parents show up. Shayla had them in the Trout Lab showing them how we take care of the trout, and I had them in my classroom showing off our monitoring technology.”
The students don’t just watch the fish on a video screen. Each classroom, from preschool through sixth grade, comes to the lab to make observations, help with tank and water-quality maintenance, and to write about the experience in their trout journals.
They also spend a fair amount of time reading — not necessarily about trout, but certainly because of them.
“We’ve connected the Trout in the Classroom project to our Accelerated Reader program,” Cullen explained. “The top 15 readers in each class will get to go on the field trip and be involved in releasing the trout.”
Principal Bissell credits the project for bringing a degree of unity to everyone involved with the school.
“It’s allowing all of us to work toward a common goal,” she said. “Each class has a role in taking care of the fish, and all of the students are invested in making the program a success. It’s project-based learning at its best, I think.”
John McCoy writes for The Charleston Gazette.