Fish project hooks Mary Hogan pupils on science

MIDDLEBURY — Third- and fourth-graders at Mary Hogan Elementary School are being asked to help create a major fish story at the beginning of each school day.
No, they aren’t being asked to write a work of fiction, or even stretch the truth.
The students, under the guidance of teacher Steve Flint, are raising 120 brook trout from eggs to their eventual release in the Middlebury River later this spring. Along with experiencing the satisfaction of growing the state’s brook trout population, the young students will learn about ecology, environmentalism and the life cycle of Vermont’s official state fish.
Flint, a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) instructor at Mary Hogan, discussed the project on Monday morning as he and students tended to their budding pre-school of trout-to-be that were collectively twitching about in a hallway aquarium.
“It’s a way of keeping science alive on a daily basis, in a very public way,” Flint said.
The miniature trout hatchery itself grew from discussions among teachers and state officials on what could be done to get children more engaged in science learning.
“We wanted to do something big, and hands-on,” Flint said.
It also helped to have connections.
Donna MacKenzie teaches a second-grade class at Mary Hogan. Her husband, Chet MacKenzie, is a fisheries biologist with the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department. Chet MacKenzie helped the school secure the 120 brook trout eggs for the Mary Hogan science project.
“You don’t go to Petco to get trout eggs,” Flint said with a chuckle.
Flint also contacted Joe Mark, a former educator at Castleton State College, to get advice on how to set up the aquarium and other necessary equipment to bring the trout eggs to maturity. Mark has helped schools in Manchester and Dorset establish their trout programs.
Once Mary Hogan’s STEM teachers were confident in their ability to run a miniature on-site trout nursery, they searched for money to pay for the aquarium and related equipment, including a chiller to maintain a consistent, chilly water temperature the trout need to hatch and grow.
The Addison Central Educational Endowment Fund provided $1,200, and the Middlebury Elementary School Association kicked in $700 to underwrite other supplies and field trips to allow the springtime release of the fish into the wild.
The students are currently learning that the trout, just like themselves, have a lot of growing up to do before they are able to strike out on their own.
The trout recently took their first baby “steps” from egg to alevin, a tadpole-like stage. The tiny alevins are able to flutter up and down in the water as they feed off a tiny egg sac that is attached to their bodies. They will spend the coming weeks transitioning to fry and then fingerling before reaching adulthood.
And monitoring it all will be Mary Hogan school’s third- and fourth-graders, to whom Flint has assigned some specific trout tasks. On a rotating basis, groups of students record such things as the temperature, phosphorous level, nitrate content, ammonia and carbonate hardness of the water.
They do this by scooping some of the aquarium water into a test tube, to which testing chemicals are applied. The kids are on alert if the test tube water turns the wrong color; fortunately, that has not been an issue to this point.
“Brook trout are so sensitive to any little imbalance,” Flint said. “They are one of the best indicators of a healthy ecosystem.”
Students also realize that the alevins have to be treated with kid gloves at this early stage of their existence. The water temperature must not get any warmer than 42 degrees; a chiller sees to that. The aquarium’s glass surface has been obscured with a shiny covering to maintain a dark environment.
Flint explained that it’s essential to mimic, as closely as possible, the environmental conditions that trout would experience in a river or stream. To that end, the school will have to temporarily remove a fluorescent light located above the aquarium. Addison Independent photographer Trent Campbell was cautioned not to take any flash pictures of the alevins in order to maximize their survival chances.
And surviving they are, thanks to the TLC (Trout Loving Care) the students are dispensing to their fish friends. As of Monday, it looked like only two of the 120 trout eggs had failed to hatch.
So far the aquarium has remained a humming mystery box that draws curious glances from everyone who enters the Mary Hogan school building.
“The kids are super anxious to have (the aquarium) uncovered,” Flint said.
Monday morning saw an enthusiastic group of students check on the maturing fish.
“We get to see the fish grow,” third-grader Aidan Chance said of his favorite aspect of the project.
While Aidan and many of his classmates have fished in local ponds, lakes or rivers, most have never before seen fish this early in development.
Fellow third-grader Zach Wilkerson is already looking forward to setting these fish free, hopefully after a winter thaw.
“I hope it will be warm that day,” he said.
Tyler Robinson, a fourth-grader, thinks about how the school is helping to add to the state’s trout population.
“The reward is raising the fish and putting more fish into the streams,” he said. “And the fish eat mosquitoes.”
Third-grader Hannah Cormier is enjoying seeing the different stages in the trouts’ growth, while Vivi Hammond, grade 4, has been a big fan of the water testing.
Fourth-grader Reilly Lawson is thankful that the fish are surviving in their temporary man-made habitat.
“The tests have all been good,” he said.
Flint is anticipating two separate release dates for the trout, in late April or early May. He anticipates students will gather at the Robert Frost Interpretive Trail in Ripton and introduce the fish into the nearby Middlebury River. At the same time, students will be able to study other environmental issues, such as riverbank stabilization, the impacts of Tropical Storm Irene and insect activities.
Until then, students will continue to nurture their young fish.
“It’s exciting, but also a little bit of a life lesson that not everything is instant gratification,” Flint said of the project.
He smiled as he observed his students busily filling test tubes and writing down test results.
“This is where the excitement is,” he said. “There’s not a better way to start the day, for me.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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