Mason County elementary students learn science, math while growing fish
No, not the dogs. The fish.
All day long, classes of students troop down the school’s hallways to Room 145 to observe the fish swimming in the three 50-gallon aquariums that dominate the room’s back left corner.
“It’s a fish laboratory,” said Shayla Blackshire, the fourth-grade teacher who started the school’s involvement with fish six years ago. “The kids really have embraced it. During the day, teachers can bring their classes in here and have their kids work with the fish. It gets the kids really excited about learning.”
Blackshire said the lessons taught in the fish lab are “education with a short needle” - students learn plenty, but never realize they’re being taught.
“Kids learn science, for sure, but they also learn math and reading,” she added. “There’s a social-studies component to it, too.”
In two of the tanks, special chillers keep the water cold enough to harbor trout. One tank contains a batch of tiny golden rainbow trout, hatched only recently from their eggs. The other soon will contain brown-trout eggs, which the students will watch hatch and grow. The third tank, which has no chiller, swarms with 4-inch-long channel catfish.
Ordinarily, schools involved with Trout Unlimited’s “Trout in the Classroom” program raise only brown trout. Blackshire said that’s how New Haven got its start.
“The late Jack Williams, a wonderful man from TU’s Ernie Nester Chapter, helped us get started,” she recalled. “This will be our sixth year for raising brown trout.”
After a couple of years of raising brown trout, Blackshire wanted to find a way to help students understand the difference between cold-water fish and warm-water fish.
“I called Ryan Bosserman, the manager at the Apple Grove Hatchery here in Mason County, and told him about it,” she said. “He thought it was a great idea. He said, ‘You get the tank and the filter, and I’ll get you some catfish.’ Except for last year, when the hatchery was closed for renovation, we’ve raised catfish ever since.”
Because channel catfish spawn in summer when school is out of session, the catfish tank starts out with so-called “fingerlings,” fish 2 to 4 inches in length. They grow quickly. Blackshire said the fish currently in the tank could be released to the wild at any time, but she wants to hold onto them for as long as possible.
“We can’t let them get too big, or they’ll produce so much waste they’ll foul the water in the tank,” she said. “If it gets close to that point, we might have to release a few to keep the tank’s chemistry in balance.”
She said having the catfish gives preschool and kindergarten students something they can identify with.
“They don’t get very excited by seeing trout eggs or sac fry,” she added. “As soon as they see the catfish, they start asking questions.”
Managing three tanks filled with hungry, delicate young fish keeps nearly everyone in the school busy. Blackshire, fifth-grade teacher Jacque Richardson and first-grade teacher Ammie Jordan have the leadership roles, but other teachers volunteer to tend to the fish during holidays and school breaks.
They and the students feed the fish, monitor water temperatures, take water samples, test the samples for pH and nitrate levels, and help change the water when needed. In addition, each student keeps a journal that documents the fishes’ growth, appearance and behavior as well as the water-quality information.
This year, with the addition of the golden rainbow trout, students will also learn a little about West Virginia history (the strain was developed in the Petersburg, W.Va., hatchery); and a little about social studies (fisheries officials do not export the strain outside the state’s borders).
“It’s really unusual for a Trout in the Classroom school to have goldens,” Blackshire said. “We got them, really, because of my sons. Last year, I took them with me to the Edray Hatchery to pick up our brown-trout eggs. They saw goldens being raised for [last spring’s] Gold Rush stockings, and they asked Mr. Burns, the manager, if we could get some goldens. So this year, we purchased a tank and a chiller for the goldens and Mr. Burns got us some.”
Eggs weren’t available at the time, so Blackshire drove to Charleston to pick up a shipment of sac fry, barely hatched trout whose egg sacs hadn’t yet been absorbed. New Haven’s classes were able to watch the tiny pale-yellow fish as the sacs disappeared, then watched as Richardson released them from a screened holding pen into their tank.
Setting up and maintaining three large aquariums isn’t cheap. The tanks themselves run $300 or so apiece, the filters another $300 each, and the chillers around $850 each. The three filters’ internal workings must be replaced two times each year, at $200 a pop. Blackshire said the school seeks donations and conducts fund-raisers to keep the program going.
“Our Accelerated Reader Committee handles a lot of the fund-raising,” she added.
Reading also comes into play each spring, when the time comes to release the fish into the wild. The top 15 readers in each class do the honors.
“It’s a really big deal,” Blackshire said. “We take about 105 students, and the parents follow the bus. We take the brown trout to Kanawha State Forest, and we’ll take the golden rainbows to a stream in Pocahontas County where goldens are stocked.”
She doesn’t yet know where this year’s catfish will be stocked. Her classes used to put them in the nearby Ohio River, but because the state now stocks blue catfish there, the young channel cats will need to be released elsewhere.
Years of experience with the fish have helped the New Haven students and teachers to better care for the fish when they get them.
“When we first started raising trout, we lost a lot of them,” Blackshire said. “That first year, we released just 36. The last couple of years, we’ve released more than 200.”
What else should anyone expect from a classroom - and a school - that have gone to the fish?