By LIBBY CUDMORE
MILFORD – Call it a School of Fish.
Kim Burkhart’s Milford Central School third-graders are raising 50 brown trout in their classroom, learning hands-on about the ecosystems of rivers and streams.
“They’re inspired when they participate in this life cycle instead of just reading it in books,” she said. “It sticks with them.”
A state certified Master Teacher, Burkhart first did the trout program with students when she taught first grade at Sherburne. “Some of them, now in fourth and fifth grade, still write to me about it,” she said.
“Last November, we had a request from Kim to start a Trout in the Classroom program,” said Oneonta’s Tom Trelease, president of the Trout Unlimited local chapter. “We had limited funds, so we got a local foundation to buy all the equipment.”
Included in the setup was a tank, a filter, a chiller to maintain water temperature and a piece of AirStone to keep oxygen in the water.
And the kids helped make it a home for their fishy friends. “We researched trout habitats and made a background” for the fish tank, said pupil Liam Gannon.
On the background are logs, rocks and insects, as well as otters – a predator – and some duck feet poking down. “We wanted to make it just like home,” said Liam.
The students also practiced their persuasive writing skills in letters to the trout, encouraging them to hatch and come live in their classroom.
“First, the tank has a thermometer,” Kenson McWaters wrote enticingly. “Next, we will not let sharks in.”
But by the time they were able to purchase and set up the tank, hatching season was already over. “A teacher in Stamford has been doing this for 17 years, and she had 200 trout,” Trelease said. “She gave Kim’s class 50.”
And whoever is in charge of snacks also has to make sure the fish get their snacks too. “We feed them special trout food,” said Natalie Roe.
“The kids come in every morning and look at them,” said Burkhart.
Their observations can quickly turn into lessons. “They love to hide in the rocks, and the students thought they were dead or stuck,” she said. “But we learned that in the wild, that’s how they would hide from predators.”
In addition to the science lessons about the fish and their habitats, the students are also going to learn how to tie flies and about the importance of conservation.
“Seeing fish from start to release helps students better understand the life and health of a stream,” said Trout Unlimited member Kevin Kelly, also of Oneonta.
“It gives them an appreciation of how important our streams are,” said Trelease. “Our goal is to promote fishing to young kids.”
“This is another way to get kids outside,” said Burkhart. “They can go fishing or look around in the creek instead of playing video games.”
While this is the first Trout Unlimited-sponsored program in an Otsego County school, the chapter also provided guidance for a “Trout in the Classroom” project fifth-grade teacher Suzanne Johnson is running at Riverside Elementary School in Oneonta.
In the spring, the students will take a field trip to a DEC-approved stream to release the fish. “In Sherburne, every student got to let a fish go,” Burkhart said. “We think we have enough for every student here to do that too.”