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Trout in the Classroom: Hands-on stream health

Kamloops… What a funny word to introduce to an elementary student; or a middle or high school student for that matter. And what does it have to do with teaching about water quality? Kamloops is a variety of rainbow trout, a fish in the Salmonidae family. Fertilized Kamloops trout eggs are the hook to engaging Maryland students in a hands-on learning experience called Trout in the Classroom. This five-month journey includes science, technology, engineering, math, social studies, language arts, fine arts and more as they care for and explore the life cycle and ecology of rainbow trout.

Placing trout eggs into breeder basket; by Chuck Dinkel

Student engagement

Connecting students to their watershed and helping them understand the importance of becoming stewards of Maryland streams is fairly easy when you are using something as cool as raising fish in a classroom! Think of trout as an aquatic version of a canary in the coal mine: they are sensitive to pollution, giving us an early warning that something may not be right in an aquatic system. Learning that what humans do on the land affects water quality and everything that lives in and around the water is an important part of this program.

Students observe and monitor their fish from eggs to fry to fingerlings. On a daily basis, they measure and log a number of water quality parameters. As the fish grow, they carefully determine the amount of food to feed them. The fish and the program have become so popular in some schools that students have set up websites, blogs and video cams of their tanks for real-time viewing. Weekly updates on the progress of the hatchlings are broadcast on school radio and television programs, and appear on signs throughout the school.


Enthusiastic teachers

The success of this program is driven by the excitement of amazing teachers who bring innovative science and environmental programs into their classrooms. They spend a great deal of their own time attending workshops, showing students how to care for the fish and tank, and how to incorporate lessons into everyday science curriculum.

“The Trout in the Classroom Program has made a tremendous impact on me,” says fifth grade teacher Kate Gray. “I am amazed at the amount of academic knowledge my students have acquired, along with learning some very profound life lessons.”

Hatchery staff conducting tour; by Chuck Dinkel

Each spring, teachers plan a trout release event and celebration where students apply what they have learned. They compare the water quality of the stream where they are releasing their fingerlings to the water in the tank where they raised their fish.

For David Adamiak’s students, the visit to the Albert Powell State Fish Hatchery near Hagerstown is an eye-opening experience. He says, “They are shocked to see the difference in size! After discussion, they realize the importance of clean, fresh water in comparison to that of the school’s relatively small 55-gallon tank.”

They also conduct a stream study, looking for and identifying macroinvertebrates, or the bugs that fish feed on. Other activities might include fly-casting, tying demonstrations, a scavenger hunt, geo-caching, stream cleanups or hatchery tours.

“We are looking forward to releasing the trout in May,” says Gray, “but it’s a bittersweet experience. I suppose all good things must come to an end. The good news for me is that we’ll do it again next year! Even though it’s the end of an experience for my students, the knowledge will forever be a part of their memories in Mrs. Gray’s class!”


Making it all happen

Maryland’s Trout in the Classroom is part of a national program organized by the nonprofit Trout Unlimited. For the 2016-17 school year, 86 schools and environmental education centers in 12 counties and Baltimore City are participating. Some of these schools have more than one teacher involved in the program, so although there are 86 sites, there are actually 106 tanks being monitored by Maryland students!

Macro identification; by Chuck Dinkel

That being said, volunteer hours are crucial to success. Trout Unlimited’s mid-Atlantic Council oversees program operation and provides funding, while trained volunteers provide technical support during the school year (eggs, food, permits and tanks) and help conduct the release events.

Trout Unlimited partners with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to obtain fertilized Kamloops eggs, trout food and the required permits for the teachers. Fisheries biologists respond to teacher and volunteer questions, and also conduct hatchery tours.

In collaboration with Hood College Center for Coastal and Watershed Studies, the department’s Chesapeake and Coastal Service provides content workshops for the teachers and lesson plans on trout and their ecosystems. Aquatic Resources Education Grants provide funding for schools that need help with equipment and transportation.

Each year the program continues to expand, adding a new group of dedicated teachers and more excited students to the list of those who are learning how to protect and preserve our streams and waterways. And are having fun in the process!

Three cheers for Kamloops!


Article by Cindy Etgen—aquatic resources education section chief—and Chuck Dinkel—Maryland Trout in the Classroom coordinator. Appears in Vol. 20, No. 2 of the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, spring 2017.