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Getting Wet Is Par For The Course At Trout School

If you want to teach middle school students about water cycles, fish habitat and the impact of pollution, you can make those lessons a lot more fun if you raise real fish, go to an actual stream and let students get wet in the process. 

Trout Unlimited has a nationwide program called Trout in the Classroom that tries to do just that. A number of Vermont schools take part including Manchester Elementary Middle School, better known as MEMS.

On a recent afternoon, 40 sixth graders from MEMS spent close to two hours at the rocky headwaters of the Mettawee River in Dorset.

The water runs cold and clear there, sparkling in the sun and pooling gently in shady spots. The winding stream is a veritable Shangri-La for brook trout and a favorite for fly-fishing.

Rachel Mark, a sixth grade teacher at MEMS called out to students after they arrived at the river.“Welcome to our trout release day!” At that the kids cheered. 

Credit Nina Keck / VPR
A plate holds the various insects gathered by the students including mayflies, caddis flies and stone flies.

“I know that it’s with mixed emotion that we’re all here,” Mark went on, “because, I don’t know about you, but I started to have a little trout sadness and grief last night because they won’t be in our classroom anymore.”

Last fall, Mark’s students received 200 fish eggs from the state hatchery in Roxbury and raised them in a 750-gallon tank.

Rachel’s father, Joe Mark, a retired college administrator, is the lead facilitator for Vermont’s Trout in the Classroom program. He visited his daughter’s school several times to teach the kids how to care for the fish.

“It’s actually a pretty challenging thing to do,” said Mark. “Because the water chemistry, once the trout start feeding and defecating, the water chemistry can change in 24 hours. And you can start losing fish very rapidly.”

"I just think it's really cool that if you turn over a rock you'll find these bugs that the trout eat and stuff" - Aryn Iannuzzi, sixth grader at Manchester Elementary Middle School

He and volunteer Jim Mirenda opened the lid on a red large cooler where the 57 surviving fingerlings await their freedom. “They look good, said Mirenda.  Joe Mark smiled proudly and said, “Yeah, don’t they look great?”  

Before the students could release the fish, however, they needed to gather and identify insects the trout would eat, complete a stream study worksheet and, finally, write a poem about the project.

With nets, magnifying glasses and dreams of getting soaked, the kids broke into groups and headed for the water.

Parent volunteer Jim Mirenda and his group walked along the stream’s muddy shoreline for a few minutes before stopping. Mirenda pointed at a group of rocks. “In this little area right here, there’s thousands of aquatic insects," he said.

“Alright, lets jump in!” shouted one of the students. "Ya!" said another.

While Mirenda warned the group the water would be chilly, the kids wasted no time getting their feet wet, whooping and shrieking as they waded across the stream.

“When you’re standing in the water it is definitely really, really cold,” said student Aryn Iannazzui. “I’d say it’s about, I don’t know, like 10 degrees ... It’s really, really cold.”

The cold didn’t seem to keep anyone out of the water, however, and 12-year-old Renae Hale and the rest of her classmates quickly got to work.

“We use a net in the water,” said Hale. “The insects are usually underneath the rocks so when we put the net down and kicked the rocks a little bit the bugs would come out and float into the net.”

Credit Nina Keck / VPR
Parent volunteer Jim Mirenda works with a group of students as they gather and identify insect samples from the Metawee River in Dorset.

As she explained their methodology, Joe Mark walked over and looked in their bucket. “What are you guys finding? Oh, I recognize something there.”

“I recognize some of the mayflies that we’ve been studying,” answered Hale.

Other kids shouted out that they’d found a bug that was coming out of it’s cocoon.

Sixth grader Aryn Iannuzzi smiled as she carefully used tweezers to move a bug from their net to a white sample tray. “I just think it’s really cool that if you turn over a rock you’ll find theses bugs that the trout eat and stuff."

Iannuzzi pointed out caddis flies, mayflies and stoneflies - all good eating for their trout, she explained and all dependent on clean water.

“Before this,” she said, “I didn’t really think ... when I thought of pollution, I thought more about humans and what it’s going to do. But now after this trout, I’ve learned about the animals that live in here and what pollution can do to them.”

Iannuzzi and several other sixth graders said they were relieved their trout would have such clean water to live in.

“I actually named one of the trout Finn,” admitted Iannuzzi, “and I will be sad to watch Finn go.  But it’s better for the trout to be in the wilderness so that was the point of this to watch them grow and then send them off into the river.”

Toward the end of the field trip, the group found a shaded pool where the water moved more slowly and one by one they set the trout free.

As the kids shrieked and tried to follow them, the small fish quickly disappeared from view and made their way into the rushing water.

Ric was a producer for Vermont Edition and host of the VPR Cafe.
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