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Meaningful watershed experience for students

Seth Wakeman, 12, seventh-grade science student at Peter Muhlenberg Middle School, checks nitrate levels in a water sample from the class’ fish tank as part of the Trout in the Classroom program. Rich Cooley/Daily

Natalie Rhodes, seventh-grade life science teacher at Peter Muhlenberg Middle School, uses a turkey baster to blow air into the water to get the small trout to move. Rich Cooley/Daily

Seventh-graders at Muhlenberg Middle School raise brook trout

By Kim Walter

Seventh grade students at Peter Muhlenburg Middle School are raising Virginia-native brook trout this school year while also learning a majority of required SOL content.

Trout Unlimited, along with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, helps with the program, which is in its third year in Shenandoah County. Even though the county doesn't have it's own Trout Unlimited chapter, two teachers at Peter Muhlenburg saw the value in the "Trout in the Classroom" program.

Seventh grade Life Science teachers Jamie Nichols and Natalie Rhodes came together to write and apply for a grant to purchase the necessary equipment and associated materials to raise brook trout. Now, the school has the tanks, among other things, to use from year to year, making fundraising unnecessary.

In October, brook trout eggs are brought to the school, and local members of Trout Unlimited help to make sure tanks are set up properly to provide a good habitat.

The students just started this year's program on Oct. 18. by listing what they know and what'd they like to know about brook trout. From there, they've read articles and watched clips, which help explain life cycles, habitats and other things about the fish.

Additionally, the students have been testing the water quality in the tanks so that as many brook trout as possible make it through the school year. Ph levels and nitrates are among things that students will be checking on a daily basis.

"One year, all the fish died," Nichols said. "But you know, it just helps the students understand that science is real, and they had to figure out what was wrong and fix it."

Nichols said the Chesapeake Bay Watershed wants every child to have a "meaningful watershed experience" before leaving the seventh grade.

Seth Coffman, the Trout Unlimited Shenandoah Headwaters coordinator, explained that while brook trout are native to the state and used to thrive in the valley, because of development and degraded streams, they're now only found in the mountains.

"We're trying to restore some of the streams in the valley floor," he said. "But this program is really neat in that a lot of the kids wouldn't get to see a brook trout since they aren't really caught around here. It also exposes the students to things they wouldn't get to experience otherwise."

At the end of the school year, local streams are identified that can sustain the brook trout, and students are able to release them. Coffman said that it's expected that many won't survive for long, but this past August, two brook trout from the school's "Trout in the Classroom" program were caught in Fort Valley.

"Sure, it was only two fish, but it was a good indication that there was enough water and nutrients for a few to survive, and they had even grown a bit since being released into the wild," he said.

The teachers appreciate the program, even though a lot of continuous work goes into it.

"The kids love it, though. They clean the tanks, they feed the fish, they test the water," Nichols said. "And it's excellent for us as teachers, because they're learning how to graph, and they have a better understanding of SOL topics, like cells, osmosis and the nitrogen cycle. All these concepts are really abstract, so having something right here, in the classroom for them to connect to really helps."

The program even touches on the genetics unit, because some fish will have mutations.

Rhodes said that all of the students this year are excited to check on the fish every day.

"As the year goes on, there's usually a good 20 or 30 students who have stayed incredibly loyal to these fish, so they'll be invited to come with us for the release," she said. "But this program just proves that things change every day, and science isn't as easy as just reading a textbook. It's sticky, it's messy sometimes, but we'll do out best to fix it. And hey, I learn a lot every year too."

Coffman said it's good for locals to just see the "beautiful, native fish."

"It ties the kids back to the land and their heritage," he said. "It's important that our students understand the natural environment around them."

Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or kwalter@nvdaily.com

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