WATERVILLE - Ten of the 11 students from the life skills class at Jersey Shore Area High School filed off their bus early on the morning of May 3 at Lower Pine Bottom.
Excited and anxious, the students of Stephanie Machmer, life skills support teacher, were about to release 143 small trout fry they raised since last November.
Machmer noticed a large tank in the Jersey Shore Area Middle School and knew it had been used for a program called Trout in the Classroom some years before. She thought it would be a perfect hands-on science project for her students - who range in age from 15 to 21.
Trout in the Classroom, known by the acronym TIC, is an environmental education program for students from kindergarten through 12th grade. They raise trout from eggs to fry, monitor the water quality of the fish tank, engage in stream habitat studies and learn to appreciate water resources. At the end of the lesson, the students help release the young trout into approved streams.
"We have been trying to add more science and we thought this was a great way to do so," Machmer said.
The Trout in the Classroom project was financed in part by a TIC start-up grant awarded to the Lycoming County Conservation District from the Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited and the state Fish and Boat Commission. It also is supported by the state Department of Education's Department of Environment and Ecology.
Carey Entz, watershed specialist with the Lycoming County Conservation
District, said her agency formed a partnership with the project. When the class started, she visited the classroom every month to help guide them along and teach them more about cold water conservation.
Machmer's class received 237 live eggs, and it didn't take long before they began to hatch, she said.
"We tested the water, the chemicals, three times a week ... things like pH, nitrates," Machmer said.
The students had to monitor the water temperature to make sure the trout fry could survive. The temperature had to stay a cool 54 degrees.
Students kept a log and took turns writing in it about what was going on at the time and their experiences. The class also took photos and posted them to their school website, showing and explaining the process.
"They really had a blast with it," Machmer said. "All the kids have really enjoyed it. I was surprised, to be honest with you. I knew it would be fun. But the stuff they learned - like the chemical stuff and knowing the different cycles and stages ...."
Machmer and Entz were amazed with the wealth of knowledge the students maintained. For instance, as part of a learning exercise, Entz recommended the students did a "Jeopardy" game-like exercise found on the TIC website.
Machmer questioned whether it would work.
"Sometimes things like that are not set for life skills," she said. "But they knew every question except two, and Carey and I didn't even know them."
As the fish grew, Machmer's students learned about their life cycle and matched each step to posters hung in the classroom.
The life skills support teacher credits hands-on science projects such as this one to help drive and motivate students to learn.
"It has been amazing. They actually have retained so much information. They know when their tank chemistry is changing, they notice the changes they see changes in the behavior of the fish throughout the process," Entz said.
Machmer said many students became very attached to their fingerlings.
"For some, it is the first thing they checked in the morning. They would (hurry) straight to the tank. When a fish died, it was like (the) whole family died," Machmer said.
Fourteen of the small trout died over the school's Christmas break, which Machmer said is natural, but it was a major concern with her students.
"They said, 'Should we call Carey?' " Machmer said.
"They have learned so much. I can't even begin to tell you how much they gained from this, things that I wouldn't have guessed," she added.
"This has been one of my favorite projects," Entz said.
On the day of the release, the students walked one-by-one to the edge of Little Pine Creek, took a small cup from Machmer or Entz and gently dumped the little trout into the water.
"Good-bye, fishes," one student said.
"Actually, I was kind of sad and I don't have them in the classroom every day. It was really neat. I could really tell their connection with them," Entz said.
On top of helping the students learn and care for the trout, she also taught them about clean water streams, microinvertebrates, salamanders, turtles and more.
Machmer said she tries to incorporate the natural beauty and outdoor recreation opportunities that are available for her students right in their backyards.
"We live in such an awesome area. We have the (Pine Creek) Rail Trail. They can go to the river, see our state parks. I really try to teach them what is available in our area. So this (project) is just a bridge for us," she said.
After the release, John Kaercher, park naturalist with Little Pine State Park, showed the class other fish species living in local waters and conducted nature programs later that day, including a viewing of the bald eagle nest at the park.
Entz conducted a macro stream study from the creek water. She said they would go over what insects they captured and learn about the indicators they can tell about water.
"TIC is not just about the release. If we get the release, it's a bonus. It's about the colder water conservation and how we have to take care of the natural resources we have. It's so important. We are fortunate we are here and we have clean streams to go to," Machmer said.
The students also will fish on Antes Creek this month with the Antes Creek Fishing Club.