2016-02-18 / Front Page
Braintree Students Become Biologists
Classes Raise Trout, Study Science, Math
By Martha Slater
Braintree students Jordan Schultz, right, and Ryan Ryll conduct water quality tests on a tank full of newly-hatched trout last week. Grades four through six are raising the trout for release in the spring as part of their ongoing math and science studies. (Herald / Tim Calabro)
The focal point of the entry hall at the Braintree Elementary School right now is a colorfully decorated fish tank—home to a batch of tiny trout “fry” that are the special responsibility of the 4/5/6 grade class team-taught by Janni Jacobs and Betsy Shands. The school is participating in Trout in the Classroom (TIC), an environmental education program found in over 4,000 schools across the country, that is becoming increasingly popular in Vermont, where it is sponsored by Vermont Trout Unlimited. Students learn about early trout development, monitor the tank water chemistry, and maintain the water quality.
Each TIC installation costs about $1,200, but the equipment can be used for 10 or more years, and according to Joe Mark, lead facilitator for Vermont Trout Unlimited’s TIC program, the annual operating expenses after the first year usually run less than $80. Braintree’s participation in the program is sponsored by the Upper Valley Chapter of Vermont Trout Unlimited and the White River Partnership
Braintree teacher Janni Jacobs and fifth-grader Ryan Ryll check the trout tanks’ water against a pH chart last week. (Herald / Tim Calabro)
“We put the tank in the hallway because we wanted it to be a whole school project,” Jacobs said. “We got the 100 eggs right before Christmas from the Roxbury Fish Hatchery, and Greg Russ of the White River Partnership delivered all of the equipment. He and Mary Russ have been very supportive, as has Jeremy Whalen of the fish hatchery. He’ll even be ‘fish-sitting’ for us over the school vacation week.”
“One father comes in two days a week and works with a couple of the students to clean the gravel in the tank,” she said. “He also helped with the initial set-up, even though he doesn’t have a student in the class.”
“The eggs have hatched and are living off their yolk sacs, so right now, we don’t have to feed them, but we’re monitoring the pH of the water and testing the nitrates,” she added. “We also add a special blend of bacteria to take care of the waste material produced by the fish. Since this is a closed system, if we didn’t do this the ammonia levels created by their waste would build up and kill the fish. Of course, in a river, that wouldn’t happen.”
Last Thursday morning, fifth graders Jordan Schultz and Ryan Ryll tested the water quality by filling a turkey baster with water from the tank and used the baster to fill several test tubes. putting five milliliters in each. Jordan explained that she was testing the ammonia level and Ryan said he was testing the pH. “It needs to be between 6.8 and 7.8,” he noted.
“The students have been so enthusiastic about this project,” Shands said. “They really enjoy studying anything that has to do with the natural world. Really, they’re doing the same test that the biologist do at the fish hatchery."
“There’s a high mortality rate to this type of thing,” Jacobs explained, noting that of the 100 original eggs, there are 98 left, “and if we have 10 left to release, we’ll have done well.
“In May, when the fish are about five inches long, we’ll release them in the Third Branch of the White River across the road from the school. That’s an area that we visit a number of times each year to do animal tracking, macroinvertebrate sampling, and other activities.”
Shands noted that “This project just lends itself to so many different things. It combines biology, chemistry, river conservation, an trying to figure out how we can help the rivers be as healthy as possible. We had a stream table in the gym earlier this year, so the students could study how a steam works and how the system is impacted by erosion. A lot of the kids recalled seeing examples of those things from their ow experiences during Tropical Storm Irene.”
“They’re not only learning science and math skills, they’ve written poetry about the river, and more,” Jacobs added. “This project also includes kids of different abilities.”
Other Schools, Too
The Braintree TIC program is one of three new ones begun in the area this year. Deb Scott’s students at Bethel Elementary and Erik Anderson’s students at Chelsea Elementary are also participating.
“We’ve been having great fun hatching our eggs and seeing our fry grow,” Scott said. “During the start of our project, we had the exciting event of having a two-headed alevin hatch in our group of 100 eggs! Our Siamese twin alevin survived about eight days. We’ve had a very good survival rate overall—we have about 92 alevin out of 100.”
Scott noted that “Our alevin have not reached the fry stage yet, as we have been raising them at a slower rate than other schools by keeping the water at very cool temperature (41 degrees) for the first four weeks of their continued growth after receiving them in early January. Our alevin still have their yolk sacs and are not expected to reach “swim-up” or first feeding until shortly before April vacation.”
The students are tracking the growth and development of the trout by calculating the DI (or Developmental Index) each day which is determined by consulting a chart which calculates the growth based on the temperature average. After the alevin begin to feed they will reach their fry stage.
“Our plan is to release the fry into the White River in May,” Scott said. “Our trout hatching project is another piece of our Life Sciences strand of Next Generation Science Standards to learn about the structure and function of animals, life cycles, and to compare natural and man-made ecosystems.”
At the Chelsea School, teacher Erik Anderson is raising trout with his middle school students.
“While all of my science classes have had some exposure to the project, the sixth graders have been the most involved in terms of learning about brook trout and monitoring water chemistry in our tank.,” he explained.
“After February vacation, we will begin doing mini lessons for the elementary students in our school. The sixth grade students will show the younger students what they have been learning and doing related to the trout.
“We have had excellent success with regards to mortality,” Anderson added. “At this point, we have only lost four out of 200 eggs. Our trout will be released in the First Branch of the White River sometime in early May.”
Joe Mark, Lead Facilitator, Vermont Trout in the Classroom
In June 2012, I retired after 40 years in higher education, having spent the last 32 years of my career as dean at Castleton. One of the first things I volunteered to do in retirement was to work with Jim Mirenda to help the Dorset School, where his kids and my Vermont grandkids attend, start a TIC program. Gradually that commitment grew into my current role, which is both demanding and highly rewarding.